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Published: Wednesday, 6/20/2007

Drive-in theater being readied in Henry County

BY JON CHAVEZ
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
Rod Saunders as he prepared his property recently for the drive-in. Uprights for the screen are in the background. Rod Saunders as he prepared his property recently for the drive-in. Uprights for the screen are in the background.
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Out in the quiet farm fields of Henry County, "there aren't a lot of entertainment options," explained Donna Saunders.

Since the Wauseon Drive-In closed in 1999, families or teens in the area around Liberty Center have had no place to get together for an evening of wholesome fun under the stars.

But that's about to change.

Motivated by nostalgia, a touch of entrepreneurship, and perhaps a bit of boredom, Mrs. Saunders and her husband, Rod, plan to open a single-screen drive-in theater this summer on their 4.5-acre property on County Road 6 in Henry County's Washington Township. It's about 35 miles southwest of Toledo.

"My husband is a teacher, so he has got summers off anyway and it seemed like a great summertime part-time investment opportunity for us," Mrs. Saunders said.

"We were looking at one for Napoleon a few years ago but we couldn't work it out. So, early this spring, we were looking at back property and we said, 'Why don't we just put a drive-in in our back yard?'•"

They plan to hire their three children as employees and will use any profits to fund their children's college educations.

The couple rented a concessions truck, built a projection booth, and installed the poles and supports for the 20-by-47-foot screen to anchor their Field of Dreams Drive-In. It will have space for 175 vehicles, with movies's audio broadcast over the car's FM radio.

It will show movies that made their debuts weeks earlier, which would allow the Saunderses to change films after just a week.

Since drive-in theaters hit their peak in 1958 with 4,063 screens nationwide, the numbers have steadily declined.

The drive-in industry was hurt badly in 1966 when Congress established national daylight-saving time, forcing outdoor cinemas to start an hour later. And in the 1980s, the land where drive-ins existed became sought after by mall developers and big-box retail chains.

As of August, 398 drive-ins and 651 screens were left nationally, according to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association. One is in metro Toledo, Sundance Kid Drive-In on Navarre Avenue in Oregon.

But lately, drive-ins nationally have experienced a mini-resurgence. Although the numbers keep dwindling, several older and previously closed outdoor screens have reopened in states like Texas and California. Some investors, looking to capitalize on nostalgia, have built drive-ins. One was opened last month in Costa Mesa, Calif., using a new inflatable screen.

Paul Geissinger, president of the trade group based in Middle River, Md., said a film at a drive-in is "an economical way to be entertained."

It's more relaxed and more of an event than a traditional theater, he said.

The Saunderses will get films through a booking agent in Cleveland, choosing them based on community tastes. They expect to show two films on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights, with the first PG-rated and the second likely PG-13.

"We hope it'll be a success, but if not, we'll watch a few movies by ourselves this summer and we'll have learned something about running a business," Mrs. Saunders said.

Contact Jon Chavez at:

jchavez@theblade.com

or 419-724-6128.



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