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Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
The future of the Huntington Twin Drive-In is uncertain as it goes to auction Sunday.

Huntington drive-in’s fate relies on auction

If conditions were right, this could have been a near-perfect opening weekend.

There’s power in the fully stocked concession stand; plus a gas grill, freezers, refrigerators, ovens and cash registers that are all ready to go.

There are the two screens – both less than five years old, with the newer having been bought in 2011.

And there’s almost the perfect movie to start the season, too.

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” the latest sequel from the Marvel Comics universe that’s expected to be – like its predecessors – a box office smash, opened this weekend.

“Normally, we’d probably be open,” said John Detzler, co-owner of the Huntington Twin Drive-In.

But on Sunday, a 63-year era may come to an end at the 17-acre lot on the corner of Condit Street and Old Business Highway 24.

The drive-in, which Detzler and his wife, Nellie, have owned since 2001 and which has been for sale since last year, is up for auction.

A fixer-upper past

In 1958, more than 4,000 drive-in theaters were spread across America.

These places where you could watch movies under the stars were a staple of the culture.

The number of drive-ins still in existence totals less than 400, according to www.drive-in.com, a website devoted to the industry.

Those dwindling numbers have been attributed to urban sprawl, daylight saving time, the ability to get first-run movies and the video rental market, according to the website.

The latest challenge to hit drive-ins is shared by almost all independent movie theaters – acquiring a digital projector. The projectors are needed to show most new movies and can cost upward of $80,000 a pop.

“We thought about putting in digital and hiring someone to run (the drive-in),” Detzler said.

“But it’s one thing if you’re nearby and being a landlord. It’s another thing if you’re far away,” he continued.

And the Detzlers plan to be far away.

They own land more than 1,200 miles away – Detzler didn’t say where – and with both in their 60s, John and Nellie plan to stay there.

When the couple bought the drive-in, it had fallen into disrepair.

It had one screen that had seen better days, a fence held up by wire surrounding the grounds, no playground for the kids and no gas line to the concession stand, meaning no hot food like french fries.

The roof of the concession stand didn’t even keep rain out.

The Detzlers fixed everything up, bought two new screens, kept the grass cut, installed a playground and were soon showing mainly family-friendly movies to a growing audience.

During one twin feature over Fourth of July weekend last year, Detzler announced on the PA system to moviegoers that they had given him and his wife the best weekend business since they bought the place.

So, it’s not that they don’t love the drive-in, Detzler said, it’s just time to move on.

Still …

“We’re both hoping it will stay what it is,” Detzler said.

A hopeful future

There has been interest.

A man from Huntington had the financing ready to go, Detzler said.

A deal was in sight, the drive-in was nearly sold and, even better, ownership was going to stay local.

At the last second, the man’s wife told him not to go through with it, according to Detzler.

Then there was the couple who came all the way from New Hampshire to look at the grounds.

They never made an offer.

Another man talked to the Detzlers about putting digital in and then running the theater for them, but then he disappeared for two months without a peep.

Another couple from northern Michigan stopped by last weekend.

The story, though, has been the same.

“Nobody has made us a legitimate offer,” Detzler said.

Sunday’s auction, run by Scheerer McCullock Auctioneers Inc., will be held at the drive-in, and it’s anyone’s guess what might happen.

The 17 acres will be sold off in three parcels – a 12-acre parcel comes with the screens, the concession stands and the ticket booth.

“We’ve had interest on both sides, people wanting to keep it a drive-in and those who don’t,” said Alan Updike of Scheerer McCullock.

“A lot of people really don’t tip their hand, so it’s hard to know what to expect,” he continued.

If whoever buys the drive-in decides to keep it open, Detzler knows what they should expect.

They should expect to be innovative, he said, noting that some drive-ins in Ohio are offering preferred parking and using the extra money on those tickets to offset the cost of a digital projector.

They can also start accepting credit cards – the Huntington Twin under the Detzlers did not – to increase revenues.

He said they can expect mowing the grass in the afternoons, helping out at the concession stand and staying until 2:30 in the morning jumping cars with dead batteries.

All of that he won’t miss.

But there will be the warm spring and summer nights, there will be the regular customers, the families with their blankets and chairs out.

“Those nice, warm feelings,” Detzler said.

“I’ll miss that.”

jeffwiehe@jg.net

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