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Tiffin drive-in changes hands

A real, or reel, field of dreams

  • a-real-or-reel-field-of-dreams-2

    The Tiffin Drive-In Theater in Seneca County is about to be repaired under new owners, Rod and Donna Saunders. It is one of 30 drive-ins in Ohio and 374 nationwide.

    The Blade/Jeremy Wadsworth
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  • a-real-or-reel-field-of-dreams

    The Tiffin Drive-In in Seneca County has been bought by a Liberty Center couple who own the Field of Dreams Drive-In where they say attendance had risen 42 percent over the last year.

    The Blade/Jeremy Wadsworth
    Buy This Image

a-real-or-reel-field-of-dreams

The Tiffin Drive-In in Seneca County has been bought by a Liberty Center couple who own the Field of Dreams Drive-In where they say attendance had risen 42 percent over the last year.

The Blade/Jeremy Wadsworth
Enlarge | Buy This Image

The Liberty Center, Ohio, couple who launched the successful Field of Dreams Drive-In theater four years ago in Henry County has decided to dream bigger.

Rod and Donna Saunders said Wednesday that they are expanding their family-owned cinema business by purchasing the 62-year-old Tiffin Drive-In in Seneca County, which they will remodel and expand. The couple also is adding a screen to the Liberty Center drive-in.

Mrs. Saunders said the deal for the Tiffin property was expected to close Wednesday, although removal of a broken fence around the site already has begun. She declined to disclose the price the couple negotiated with the drive-in's long-time owner, Norman Barr of Cleveland.

When the couple opened Field of Dreams on County Road 6 in 2007, they did so out of nostalgia and as a part-time investment. They never planned on expanding.

"We've enjoyed the business a lot and recognize that a lot of the folks in this business are aging … so we talked about if somebody was going to retire and one of these businesses were to close, would we talk about the opportunity to expand? And we said, 'Yes,'  " Mrs. Saunders said.

At a drive-in theater owners convention last year, they learned Mr. Barr was retiring and selling his Tiffin drive-in on State Rt. 53, so they contacted him about buying it and worked out a deal.

Mrs. Saunders said business at their Liberty Center drive-in theater has been increasing, with attendance up 42 percent last year over the previous year, although she declined to give specific head-count numbers for competitive reasons. The increase was a reason why the couple has decided to add a second screen there and to buy the Tiffin property, which will be renamed the Field of Dreams Drive-In Theater -- Tiffin.

The acquisition will get screen repairs, a second screen, new paint, a new entry sign, a new roof for an on-site building, and upgraded plumbing and electrical wiring.

a-real-or-reel-field-of-dreams-2

The Tiffin Drive-In Theater in Seneca County is about to be repaired under new owners, Rod and Donna Saunders. It is one of 30 drive-ins in Ohio and 374 nationwide.

The Blade/Jeremy Wadsworth
Enlarge | Buy This Image

Part of the reason the Saunderses were able to operate their Liberty Center drive-in was because Mr. Saunders is a teacher who has summers available to work. Though Tiffin is 90 minutes from their home, they plan to let their son, Denton, 21, who is getting his teacher's certificate, run the Tiffin drive-in.

"It has a house on the property and he will be the primary on-site manager. He'll do the hiring and training and he's very knowledgeable about projection," Mrs. Saunders said. "He's been our primary projectionist and knows all the technical work."

The Liberty Center drive-in has 16 part-time workers. Mrs. Saunders said the family will employ 16 part-timers in Tiffin.

According to the United Drive-In Theater Owners Association, there are 30 drive-in theaters and 48 screens in Ohio. Nationwide, there are just 374 drive-in theaters left, down from 443 about 10 years ago, and well down from a peak of 4,063 in 1958.

Jim Walter, owner of Great Eastern Theatres, which owns the Springmill Drive-In theater in Mansfield, Ohio, and operates the Sundance Kid Drive-In theater in Oregon, said done correctly, a drive-in theater "is still a pretty reliable business."

Patrons find it offers things no longer available at indoor cinemas -- two movies for one price, the ability to talk openly, eat, or smoke during a film. "It still rings a bell for people wanting to be on their own and can control their own destiny," he said.

The Saunderses said the Tiffin site will open at the end of May.

Contact Jon Chavez at: jchavez@theblade.com or 419-724-6128.

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