Corbin H. Crable
It’s been called one of the best-kept secrets in the area, but on some busy Friday or Saturday nights, you wouldn’t know it by looking at the crowds.
The Midway Drive-In Theatre is a member of an endangered species – it is only one of 12 drive-ins still in operation in the state of Kansas, and one of an estimated 500 remaining in the United States.
But co-owner Ann Dimoush of Rantoul and her husband Paul say they enjoy being able to offer low-cost entertainment to movie lovers. They’ve been doing it for the past four years, after all.
“I retired from the Franklin County Courthouse and had been there 22 years,” Ann said. “And I missed people. The former owners (of the theater) called and asked if I would come and work the ticket booth, and I just got into it. When it came up for sale, we bought it.”
The drive-in, located between Paola and Osawatomie, had already changed hands several times since it opened on May 13, 1952, when the year’s top movies included the classic western “High Noon” with Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly, and the wildly popular musical “Singin’ in the Rain” with Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds. Ann and Paul said they wished to continue to offer area residents with the chance to watch their favorite movies under the stars – so they rolled up their sleeves and got to work, keeping the grounds mowed and mending the fences surrounding the property.
“You’ve got to have a clean place, or people won’t want to bring their kids out there,” Ann said.
More recently, Ann and Paul have replaced the wiring in all of the theater’s speakers, so the sound from the movies trickles into customers’ cars crystal clear.
On a night with poor attendance, the theater may only see 10 cars pull in. But on the highest-grossing nights, the theater – which can accommodate 234 cars – will be packed to capacity.
Paul threads and operates the 35 millimeter projector, while Ann works the theater’s box office, selling tickets and chatting with motorists. Four staff members usually work in the concession stand, bagging popcorn and selling other treats to moviegoers. Sometimes, Ann said, she needs more help than that.
“One night we had people backed up clear to the airport,” she recalled. “When I know I’m going to have a busy night, I try to have my daughter or stepdaughter there to help me.”
Ann said that while megaplexes continue to dot the landscape of Johnson County, drive-ins throughout the state and the nation suffer because they remain at the mercy of Mother Nature – typically, drive-ins are only open from spring to early fall.
“The money is on the ‘inside’ movies,” she said, adding that it wasn’t always that way. “But when I was little, you had small heaters (at the drive-ins) that you could hang on your window. Some people would just drive off with those, so that didn’t last very long.”
Thankfully, as movie theaters such as AMC’s Studio 30 in Olathe continue to grow in popularity, the Midway retains its status as a grand source of nostalgia for some of its clientele.
“This summer we’ve started having more families and older people,” Ann said. “Older people will come in from all over and say, ‘We haven’t been to a drive-in since high school.’”
Unfortunately, that nostalgia comes with a price, Ann noted. She said that due to the economic recession and the costs of keeping the Midway open and properly maintained, ticket prices likely will go up next year. As it stands now, children ages 3-11 cost $1, and anyone over the age of 12 is $6.
“I keep wanting to raise ticket prices, but my husband keeps saying, ‘No, the economy’s not good,’” Ann said. “I’m going to have to raise them or we’ll have to do away with the concession stand.”
In that event, Ann said, prices will go up to $2 for children ages 3-11 and $7 for anyone over the age of 12.
But until that day comes, Ann said, she and Paul are simply enjoying operating a business that allows them to keep the magic of the drive-in movie theater alive.
“(Customers) love it. They thank us for having it,” Ann said. “It’s a place where they can bring the kids and play – it’s just relaxing.”
The Midway Drive-In Theatre, 29591 W. 327th St. in Paola, opens for business at 7 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, and movies begin at dusk. For more information, call (913) 755-2325.