Storytellers: The Last Drive Ins of Colorado

The drive in is a staple of Americana that's quickly disappearing. Storytellers this week takes a look at how the drive in impacted Colorado - and how it still does.

The setting sun turns summer evening clouds into a rainbow over Montrose, CO. A crowd has gathered on a gravel lot in cars, SUVs and pickup trucks. But they're not focused on the show in the sky; The Star Drive-In's giant screen has come to life. The chatter of the crowd turns into a low hum. A double feature is about to begin.

That's not an uncommon scene across much of Colorado from May through September. Across the country, though, just 326 drive ins remain open. Some states don't have a single one left.

The Star has been a way of life for Pamela Friend her entire life. Her parents built the drive in in 1949 - Three years before she was born.

"I started working here when I was five," Friend said. "I was a ticket runner and yard personnel. Graduated from that to the ticket office, then to the concession stand and then to the projection room."

She's done it all, and, for the most part, she's loved it.

"The good things was, you always had friends, they always wanted to come in free," Friend said. "The bad was we've never had a family vacation in the summer, never had a barbeque or got to sit and drink tea, because this is an every night thing. It's a commitment and it's a 68 year old commitment."

Friend took over the Star's operations when she was 29 and inherited the theater with her brother and sister after their parents passed away in 1995. It's still a family operation. Friend spends most of her time in the projection room, while her daughter runs the ticket booth.

Many of their customers have been coming here so long, they might as well be family, too.

"The lady working the ticket booth is the same lady that's been there since I was five years old," Dustin Boyd said.

Boyd was there with his wife, Kimball, son, Tucker, and newborn baby Clara. It was her first drive in experience.

"There's a culture about it that makes you feel good to be from a small town," Body said. "You would loose that small town feel if you lost the drive in I think."

In 2014 that's exactly what happened in Sterling Colorado.

While the Front Range and Western Slope are home to nine active drive ins, not a single one is open on the Eastern Plains, according to Carload.com.The Starlite Drive In was the last one left when it shut it's gates for good.

"We really tried to keep it going, but it's hard," Todd Allen said.

Allen helped his buddy reopen the theater a few years ago. He's lived in Sterling since the 70's and remembers coming to the Starlite for college nights.

"There's something about just watching a movie outside with your family and friends and not cramped up in a little movie theater, you know?" he said.

Allen says it cost $100 thousand just to get one of the Starlite's twin screens up and running with a new digital projector.

He's not sure exactly what caused the drive in to close for good, but one idea nags the back of his mind.

"I think it shows you where society is going, and we're becoming more of a boxed in, anti social," Allen said. "We're not really mingling like we used to."

As the Starlite shut down, a new drive in was being built just outside downtown Denver.

"It was definitely interesting," Richard Fobert said. He supervises that drive in. "I've always been used to the ones out in the fields, you know? And this one here's just in a parking lot."

The Denver Mart Drive In is in its third year. If you take in a double feature there, you might have to contend with more than just a little chit chat from the next car over.

"We have a train that goes by every now and then," Fobert said. "We have a fire station just over here that, when they get a call, we hear them all the time."

Despite the urban sounds that encompass the Denver Mart, Fobert says business has been good and the crowds steady. But with so many of these places closing, why would anyone invest the money to build one from scratch? We couldn't talk to the Denver Mart's owner, but Fobert says he has the answer.

"The boss who owns the Denver Mart here, he grew up with drive ins, and he was out here one day and he just had this idea that, 'hey, it's a parking lot, it sits open at night, why not do a drive in?" Forbert said.

According to Fobert, the owner just couldn't help himself; he loves drive ins.

Drive in season still has a few weeks left, so if you're looking to take in a movie under the stars check out the list I've compiled below:

Comanche Drive In Theatre - Buena Vista

88 Drive In Theatre - Commerce City

Tru Vu Drive In Theatre - Delta

Denver Mart Drive In - Denver

Holiday Twin Drive In - Fort Collins

Blue Starlite Mini Drive In - Minturn

The Star Drive-In Theatre - Montrose

Best Western Movie Manor - Monte Vista

Mesa Drive In - Pueblo

© 2017 KUSA-TV


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