Chesterton Tribune

49er Drive-in keeps 50s look with 21st Century update

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When the 49er Drive-in opens on Easter weekend, movie goers are in for some great surprises. Steve and Mike Cotton will have renovated the popular attraction to meet today’s needs, while keeping the flair of the 1950’s.

With three weeks till opening, it appears they will be cutting it close to be ready on time. However, with determination, they are confident everything will be in place.

They have one year of experience under their belts, having purchased the 45-year-old facility a year ago. During their initiation, they watched and listened to what was needed to improve the venue. To that end, they’ve gutted the building that houses the projection room, public bathrooms and concession stand and are excited about the outcome.

The restrooms are probably the most notable change. They are larger and moved to each end of the building.

“People used to be lined-up outside the building waiting to use the facilities,” Steve said. “We had to do something about that.”

More urinals were added to the men’s room and the women’s room will have five stalls instead of two. A baby’s diaper changing station also has been added.

An arcade will be stationed where the former women’s bathroom was located.

The ceilings have been covered with drywall throughout the building. In the past, the rafters were exposed, Steve said during a tour.

The concession stand also has been dramatically expanded. The counter space stretches about 30-feet long which will allow more foods to be offered, Steve said. Concessions are his bailiwick, the projection room is Mike’s.

The brothers will be attending a food show soon to see what is new to add to their regular fare.

“We couldn’t have even thought about it before, because there wouldn’t have been enough space,” Steve said.

The projection room has been updated with modern equipment, no longer the familiar two or three cameras of yore.

In the past, a projection-man would be prepared with several reels, to change to a second or third projector in order to keep a movie running non stop. Mike installed an up-to-date roll deck that uses only one projector. The film is spliced together containing the entirety of both feature movies and all commercial advertisements. It is placed on the top circular disk that feeds via pulley to the projector and unwinds on the second deck in order to be shown for the next night’s show.

“I only had one break last year,” Mike explained showing the souvenir of the burned section of the film. “It was at the climax of “The Perfect Storm,” he said, adding that the audience was patient during the approximately 15 minutes it took to repair the film.

According to the duo, the 49er is one of only about 500 outdoor movie theaters in the United States. In their hey-day there were about 5,000, Steve said. They came of age in the 1950s and 1960s, but many disappeared in the decades that followed.

Fortunately for area residents, the 49er stayed in business although the number of shows dwindled until last year when the Cottons took it over.

“From the start we wanted to have it open seven nights a week,” said Steve, adding that the previous owners worked with them almost all summer making the transition a smooth one.

“They were invaluable to us,” he said. “They held our hands the whole way through. And, even today, they are only a phone call away,” he said.

The 49er offers 500 parking spaces and 420 speakers. Not to worry about not enough speakers, they said. Today, people can listen to the movie on 88.5 FM in their cars and get an incredible stereo sound.

The mechanics turned theater owners said they will keep the family oriented tradition at the drive-in offering family movies. However, some of the second feature films might have a more restrictive rating, but still in good taste.

“We will never show raunchy-type movies,” Steve said. “The problem we have is that there aren’t as many GP ratings as there are with stricter ratings. Most of Tom Hanks films are restricted, but the films are still considered good films,” he said.

Also in the tradition of years past, the families can come early and play soccer, or other games with the kids before the film begins. “There is plenty of room for that,” Steve said.

We take pride in providing a clean, family oriented activity,” he concluded.

One difference patrons will have to get accustomed to is the change in admission fee. Instead of being charged by the car, individuals will be charged instead. The amount has not yet been determined.