Sixty years of fun at the drive-in

Parma theater owners to mark 60th anniversary

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PARMA (AP) - In the early 1950s, new television sets had valley residents staying home more and going to the movies less, which didn't bode well for local theater owners.

Bill Dobbs of Parma decided to open a drive-in theater in the town to get people out of their homes and going to the movies again, his daughter Karen Cornwell said.

Dobbs, who also owned an indoor theater in downtown Parma, sold his home so he could make a down payment on a loan for the theater, Cornwell said. But the Parma Motor-Vu didn't open to huge crowds its first year.

"It really wasn't that great, because there was a drive-in in almost every little town in the valley," Cornwell said. "... It was a situation where you were expected to draw just within your own community, and it wasn't enough. They struggled."

Despite the lackluster start, Dobbs' Parma Motor-Vu gained momentum and has held on through the years. It will celebrate 60 years July 20, and it's one of just 10 drive-in theaters left in the entire state, according to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association, down from a high of 40.

"I'm really proud of it and proud that we maintain it," Cornwell said. "It's kind of mind boggling to think that we've survived for 60 years."

What saved the struggling theater in the earlier years was the decision to show Spanish-language films, Cornwell said. For a while the drive-in showed those films Wednesdays and Sundays and English-language films Thursdays through Saturdays. The theater dropped the Spanish films in the 1980s when business slowed, and started showing newer titles. They also closed the downtown theater around the same time.

Cornwell said they realized the drive-in theater was showing films that were older than what was on television.

"There you have it - TV was the culprit again," she said.

Cornwell and her husband took over the theater from her parents in 1976. She said it wasn't her intent to carry on the family business, but it has become something she loves. Her children help with the theater now and some of her grandchildren are on the payroll.

The first movies shown at the Motor-Vu were "Trouble Along the Way," starring John Wayne, and "The Gunfighter," starring Gregory Peck. Adults could watch a movie for 60 cents, children ages 10 and 11 were 20 cents and children younger than 10 were free.

This past weekend, adults paid $8 and children younger than 12 got in free to see "Star Trek Into Darkness," starring Chris Pine, and "Fast and Furious 6," starring Vin Diesel.

Although the movies and their stars may have changed, many things at the Parma Motor-Vu have remained intact over its six decades. Popcorn is still popped in the original machine and movies are shown on the original screen.

In April, Cornwell converted the theater to digital, a necessity to stay in business because films will all go digital after this year, she said.

As the number of drive-in theaters dwindles, the theaters have become nostalgic places for families to spend an evening. Cornwell said grandparents like to bring their grandchildren to watch movies outdoors the way they did when they were younger.

But it's not just an older generation that can appreciate the experience. Animated features draw the biggest crowds to the theater, Cornwell said. "Cars" was the most successful movie to ever play at the Parma Motor-Vu. The drive-in had to turn cars away that lined up a quarter-mile down the road. The film also played for five weeks instead of the two weeks movies are normally shown at the theater.

She said the theater is doing much better now than it did in the early days, and draws people from all over.

"The whole valley comes here," she said. "It's not a Parma drive-in theater, it's a valley drive-in theater."

The theater will mark its anniversary with a barbecue for current and past employees, including the original projectionist and the original "popcorn girl," Cornwell said.

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