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Toledo, Ohio & Lake Erie

The Press Newspaper

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Jim Walter, president of Toledo-based Great Eastern Theatre company, has Playboy magazine’s list of Top 10 drive-ins in his office, and it includes Oregon’s Sundance Kid on Navarre Ave.

Walter’s company took over the Sundance in the 1990s, and it is one of only 350 drive-ins still operating in the United States today. But Great Eastern has never faced a challenge like they do now, because high winds took down one of Sundance’s screen towers the evening of Nov. 17.

Nonetheless, Walter says the theatre should be up and running with two screens by spring.

“We’re still in the middle of finalizing our situation with our insurance company, which they planned to have done in the next day or two,” Walter said. “When that’s done, we have every intention to, in this case, of replacing the drive-in tower. It’s not savable. We have to totally take it away and put in new in its place, and that’s our intention.

StormDriveIn
High winds took down one of the screen towers at the Sundance Kid Drive-In.
(Press photo by Ken Grosjean)

“As far as being ready for spring — it should not be an issue. We are fortunate that it happened when it did. We’re not open now and we have time to make our moves on getting a new one in there before we do open around the first of April, when we usually do. That should be good,” Walter continued.

“If it would have been different and it would have been April, May, June, July, August, and in addition someone may have been hurt or it may have taken lives or something when it came down. You don’t know.

“We’re pretty fortunate. The box office is right next to it and the marquee and the other screen tower in the back, and the concession stand, and our concession trailer where we have our novelty items, we haven’t at this point in time noticed any other damage.”

Because Great Eastern Theatre, which also owns a Mansfield drive-in, has never replaced a screen tower before, Walter cannot say how much it will cost.

“It’s going to be a major project, I know that,” Walter said.

Another discussion is whether it was the same tornado that the National Weather Service says destroyed homes along Lallendorf roads and at the Wynn-Seaman intersection, or whether it was high winds. Walter says he doesn’t believe that will affect the insurance company’s ability to help him rebuild.

“I think whatever they determine it is officially won’t really affect the results of our insurance. Whether it was categorized as high winds or a tornado, they both did the same damage,” Walter said.

Walter became aware that the tower was down just after the storm hit, about 6 p.m. Sunday night.

“We had a number of people who worked at the drive-in who live in Oregon and East Toledo, and I suppose we have people from all over,” Walter said. “I was out of town, and then I got a telephone call as I was driving into town and was told about it. We’ve been checking it out ever since.”


The mystique continues
Playboy’s Top 10 drive-ins was compiled by Texan Don Sanders, author of The American Drive In Movie Theater and ran in the magazine’s August 1998 issue. Playboy wanted one drive-in from each region of the country — at the time Ohio had the most of any state. It was part of the magazine feature “The Summer Night’s Buzz,” which rated top places to eat, drink, flirt, and party.

“We had an indication two or three months earlier,” Walter said. “They had stopped by and taken pictures. We had been selected, but we didn’t know what it was, it was just that they were doing something, what the deal was, or how many were selected or anything else. Then they let us know that it was coming out when the edition came out.  That was a real neat thing — a real pleasant surprise. That was good stuff.”

Sundance was called Parkside Drive-In before Great Eastern Theatre took over, and it opened in 1952. The second screen in the back was added in the mid-1970s.

According to drive-ins.com, currently there are 442 open drive-ins operating around the world, including 53 in Canada. At their peak in 1958, there were between 4,000 and 5,000 drive-ins operating in the United States.

“There was a peak time. I think it was the late 40s, early 50s was when they peaked. Then it went all the way through the 50s, and then TV and other things started to hurt it.

“All of them (in Toledo metro area) disappeared. There is another one now out in Liberty Center — it started about five years ago on a farmland location out there by this family, and that is still going strong and doing OK. But I think it’s only open weekends, but they’ve been successful so far. You go over to Fort Wayne, Indiana, or south to Lima, or north to Detroit, or east over there to Sandusky. Along with the one in Liberty Center, we’re the only one in the Toledo area.

Walter says the allure of drive-ins still remains for many people.

“It develops a clientele for us that is separate from the indoors. We have many of our patrons who hardly ever go to indoors,” Walter said. “It’s just a hobby, recreational-almost thing they do. The drive-in allure is still alive and kicking.

“People like to be out under the sky. They like being in the air. They like being in the comfort of their car. They like the idea of getting two movies for the price of one. They like the idea of sitting in their car and smoking a cigarette if they want to. Those kinds of things, in addition to not having to pay for a babysitter, and they can bring the kids, makes a big difference for them.” 

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