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Blast from the past looks ahead

Family-owned Georgetown Drive In treats Southern Indiana moviegoers to a glimpse of days long gone

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Blast from the past looks ahead

Photo by John Clere

Photo by John Clere

Photo by John Clere

Photo by John Clere

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Even on a lightly-attended night, the Georgetown Drive-In opens its gates to a line of cars stretching from the ticket booth to the road. The line twists around the theater’s marquee, upon which rests a bright blue 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air wrapped in neon lights.

Moviegoers are greeted at the ticket booth with a grin and an outstretched hand. $11 (cash only) buys a ticket for a double feature on one of the drive-In’s two outdoor screens.

As cars pull into parking spots lined with the theater’s original outdoor window speakers, the Powell family is hard at work preparing for the show.

“We have a special treat for you all tonight,” says a voice on the theater’s loudspeaker. “To honor Aretha Franklin, we have a special clip from a movie you may have heard of. We’re showing it on 35 millimeter, too. I feel like she was an old-time girl, so I wanted to do this the old-time way.”

Drive-In owner Bill Powell, the voice on the loudspeaker, turns on the theater’s carbon arc projector to reveal a faded film print of Aretha Franklin’s scene in the 1980 classic film The Blues Brothers. A surprise showing of her famous cameo, says Powell, is his way of honoring the recently deceased musician.

Powell purchased the theater from his mother after she inherited it from Bill’s father, who even before he owned the theater found any way he could to show movies to his friends and family.

“Dad loved showing movies,”Powell said. “Every Saturday was movie night at our house. All the neighborhood kids came. He projected the movies onto the side of our house.”

The Georgetown Drive-In, built in 1951, was purchased by the Powell family in 1965.

“My dad expressed that he’d love to buy the drive-in one day. And one day that day came,” Powell said.

Keeping with her family’s cinema tradition, Bill’s daughter Andrea Powell works at the drive-In’s pizza tent.

“I started working here off and on when I was 7 or 8,”Andrea said. “This has always seemed like another home. It never seems like we’re working.”

Andrea Powell has difficulty imagining her father Bill as a boss.

“I don’t really think of it like that,” she said. “It’s just a family thing.”

Although she wasn’t born into the Powell family, pizza tent worker Tammy Woosley feels at home at the drive-in.

Georgetown Drive-In owner Bill Powell stands in front of the drive-In’s carbon arc trailer, a moving truck the theater re-purposed to house its two 35 millimeter film projectors. Photo by John Clere

“The Powell family is probably the world’s best employers,”Woosley said. “They’re my second family. They treat me like another daughter.”

But the family-owned theater faces new challenges every year.

“Attendance has been on the decline for three years,”Bill said. “Not a big drop, but it’s dropping.”

He says a well-performing economy may be to blame.

“I think the drive-in thrives when times are hard. It’s cheap entertainment for the family,”Bill said.

In spite of its slight decline, Bill Powell has big plans
for the theater.

“Right now there are enough good movies coming out to support a three screen drive-in,” Bill said, who has a third screen currently in storage.

The Georgetown Drive-In currently uses two screens but could install a third after purchasing neighboring property, something Bill plans to do.

Bill also plans to build a coffee stand at the drive-in this fall, something he says might be appealing to moviegoers since movies at the drive-in can only start after sunset and often end after midnight.

Bill’s daughter April will be operating the stand, he says, which he plans to call Michael’s Killer Coffee.

According to the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO), drive-ins across the country are closing their gates. NATO says 28 drive-ins closed permanently between 2017 and 2018, making the Georgetown Drive-In one of only 321 drive-in theaters remaining in America.

The fate of the drive-in, says Bill, will be decided by today’s youth.

“This summer, grandparents brought their grandchildren to see Christopher Robin,” he said.

“Those kids had never been to a drive in before, so a new generation was exposed.”

Bill, who turns 58 this September, is optimistic of the drive-In’s long-term viability, even after his eventual retirement.

“I’m sure the drive-in will still be around,” he said. “But the future of the drive-in will be left to my kids.”

The Georgetown Drive-In is to its moviegoers a special peek into the past, reminding them of days long gone.

“You could build a drive-in in your backyard, but is it going to be the same? No,”Bill said.

Nostalgia is not the only draw for its attendees, says Bill. The drive-in is a theater and contracts with the big movie studios, granting it access to any movie played in an indoor theater.

“You gotta have the movies,”Bill said. “Yeah, the nostalgia is a draw, but you have to play the movies people like.”

The Georgetown Drive-In hosts multiple special events each season, its next being the Creepy Cruise-In on Sept. 22. Admission will be raised to $12 so moviegoers can opt to be entered into a raffle to win a 1979 Dodge camper-van.

Photo by John Clere

“I try to create a festival type atmosphere,”Bill said. “People love that.”

The last weekend before the drive-in closes for the season will be Oct. 26 and 27. Bill says he would like to have a triple feature, with the first two screenings being the original and newest Halloween movies, respectively.

“I’m trying to get some special celebrity guests for the season’s last weekend,”Bill said.

The Georgetown Drive-In persists even in a difficult climate for drive-ins in large part due to the hard work of its owners and employees. Maintaining an outdoor theater is a labor of love, says Andrea.

“It’s a lot of time and devotion,” Andrea said. “My dad has such a love and passion for this.”

Showtimes and additional information can be found on the Georgetown Drive-In’s website or Facebook page.

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