Mineral Wells Index, Mineral Wells, TX

August 19, 2013

Graham Drive In must go digital or go dark... and you might be able to help

Graham theater intends not to drive off into the sunset


Mineral Wells Index

— By CLINT FOSTER



Does it get much more American than a visit to the drive-in movie theater?

Ripe with nostalgia, thoughts of a drive-in movie theater spawn images of classic cars, young love and fun times with family and friends. It’s where Danny and Sandy went on a pivotal date in “Grease.” Millions thrilled to the likes of James Dean and Natalie Wood in “Rebel Without a Cause,” Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello in “Beach Blanket Bingo” and Steve McQueen in “The Blob.”

And as far as “B” movies go, there must be an unwritten law that the only proper place to watch a film from the mind of writer, director Ed Wood is in the comfort of your car at a rural drive-in theater.

The Graham Drive In, the third-oldest drive in Texas, has been showing these and other more contemporary films to patrons from all over North Texas and beyond since 1948.

But in this age of ever-developing digital technology, now more than ever, the magnificent drive-in movie theater is threatened with extinction.

After this year, 35 millimeter film – still used by drive ins all over the nation – will no longer be available in favor of a switch to exclusively digital movies. In order to continue operations, theaters like Graham’s must acquire a digital projection system, or go the way of the dinosaurs. Such an upgrade could cost upwards of $100,000 – a steep price to pay for a mom-and-pop operation only open about 6 months a year.

However, just as there was for the Rebel Alliance in “Star Wars,” there is still hope for this beloved fixture of Graham culture.

Co-managers of the Graham Drive In Erin and J. Hawkins said the theater was approached by Honda and entered into the company’s contest. Honda plans to donate five new projectors to five lucky drive ins across the county that garner the most votes from the public. Voting runs through Sept. 9 and people can vote at projectdrivein.com or by texting “vote30” to 444-999. The contest allows one vote per device per day. Graham’s theater is among 60 other drive ins entered in the contest, so the Hawkinses said it is imperative that people vote as often as possible – in other words, daily.

“[Graham Drive In] really is something special,” J. Hawkins said. “There’s not another one in North Texas that’s a classic like this. It’s not only part of the cultural heritage of the town, but it’s also a big draw to the town. A lot of people come from out of town to visit it. It’s also a gathering place where great things happen for the community.”

Having grown up in Graham, J. said the drive in holds a special place in his heart. He said he remembers seeing virtually every major movie of his childhood there including “E.T.” and “Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark” and later movies like the Terminator series in high school.

“When Mr. Trout owned it, he would just run the movie until everybody left,” J. said with a laugh. “I remember sitting out there and watching ‘Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome’ like two-and-a-half times and he just let us hang out.”

After J. and Erin had been married for some time, they moved back to Graham about four years ago and Erin saw her first drive-in movie.

“I just loved it right away,” Erin said. “It’s relaxing, you’re sitting in your car or outside your car, it’s outdoors, it’s very comfortable. So, when the Scotts asked if we’d like to work out there, I said ‘Yes. I’m all in.’”

Pam Scott has owned the Graham Drive In for six years and she said she does not want this year to be her last. She said the drive in has become a great source of pride for the community and she appreciates all the support the community has given the theater in the years she has owned it.

“When you look at a community and things that have historical significance, it’s just important to keep those,” she said. “Those are things that are just true to your town and make it what it is. You just have to fight for those things.”

Scott said she has many fond memories of visiting drive-in movies in the 60’s and 70’s, when they were much more prevalent. She laughed as she remembered crawling into the trunks of friends cars and sneaking into the movies.

Many members of the Mineral Wells community have fond memories of drive-in movies in their younger days as well. A common theme with a group of men at the Mineral Wells Senior Center was the drive in was a great place to take dates.

“Oh yea,” Walt Friedel said with a laugh, fondly remembering his dating days in the mid-50’s. “It was like when you’d go to the regular show, you’d sit on the back row so no one could see you. I had a bunch of good dates at drive-in movies. Some you couldn’t even print.”

Friedel continued to visit drive ins after he was married and had two kids. He said it was great because the kids could play at the playground and he could enjoy the movie with his wife. He still remembers some of his favorites.

“Everybody liked Westerns, those old John Wayne movies,” he said. “Johnny Weissmuller in ‘Tarzan,’ that’s one of the best ones. He was my hero.”

Allan Lusk, a long-time Mineral Wells resident, also had many fond memories of dates, saying he “always had to wait until the movie was over before she was interested.” He particularly remembered the old car he drove as an 18-year-old in the mid-50’s. He recalled the car’s brakes did not work particularly well on the incline at the drive in he frequented.

“I’d have bricks in the back floorboard and I’d jump out and put the bricks on the wheel,” he said. “This ol’ gal I went with several times said, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘Same thing as last time: putting bricks on there so it won’t roll off.’ It was a good car, but the brakes wouldn’t hold at the drive in.”

Lusk said he took his wife to dates at drive ins all the time before they were married. He said that was all they could afford.

In Graham, Scott said the tremendous outpouring from the community leads her to believe that Graham is not ready to see its drive-in theater fade into a site only relegated to past memories. Scott added that in the event that the Graham Drive In does not win a projector in the contest, she fully plans to begin a fundraising campaign as soon as possible in mid-September.

“It’s not only part of Texas history, it’s a piece of American History,” Erin Hawkins said. “Just being out here, I see a lot of families come through.

Grandparents are bringing grandkids; or parents who came here when they were kids are now bringing their kids. It’s creating a lot of memories for a lot of families in the area and I just love being a part of that as well.”

Follow Clint on Twitter @Clint_Foster55