Danedri Thompson
Decisions made in Hollywood rarely have repercussions in Miami County, Kan. But after decades of movie-making magic on 35 millimeter film, Hollywood is going digital.
The change could leave drive-in movie theaters in the dust. But that won’t be the fate of the Midway Drive-In in Paola, if Tamara Maichel, Osawatomie, has anything to say about it.
She heard the decades old drive-in would shutter its doors last summer as filmmakers made the move from 35 mm film to digital.
“I honestly thought last year they were going to close,” Maichel said. “When I found out the drive-in was going to re-open this season, I was really glad.”
But the threat of closing the drive-in theater lingers. Filmmakers slowed the rollout of all digital products giving drive-in theaters a reprieve at the end of last summer. Next year, however, movies will only be released digitally, and upgrading projection equipment is cost prohibitive, Ann Dimoush, owner of Midway Drive-In said.
“Thirty-five millimeter film is going bye-bye as of Dec. 31, the way we understand,” Ann said. “That means we either have to put in digital equipment or we don’t re-open the drive-in.”
Even older films will be converted from 35 mm to digital.
“Filmmakers won’t even let you lease or borrow a 35 mm reel,” Maichel said. “It’s almost like eight track tapes. They’re just phasing it out.”
Dimoush and her husband Paul purchased the theater six years ago. Ann worked for Franklin County for more than 20 years, but retired for health reasons several years ago.
“When you work with people for that many years, talking with the husband and cows and the dog doesn’t cut it,” Ann said.
So she started working at the Midway Drive-In ticket booth. When the property came up for sale a year later, she and her husband bought the theater. On weekends, she works in the ticket booth. Her husband, Paul, works the projector.
They show two films each weekend evening. The first show starts long after dark — any earlier or with more light, and moviegoers can’t see colors on the screen.
Owning a drive-in makes for late nights, Ann said. The final film typically wraps up sometime after 1 a.m. and then the duo cleans.
“Three or four nights a week, we don’t get to bed until four or five in the morning,” she said. “And then we’re up at 6 a.m.”
The pair also owns a farm. They’ve made numerous upgrades to the 10-acre theater property, but Ann says, they don’t have an extra $75,000 to buy digital equipment.
Maichel and several friends and community members don’t want to see the local theater close. So Maichel has started a fundraising effort with a goal of gathering enough funds to make a large down payment on digital projectors.
“I grew up with my parents taking me to drive-ins. And now I’m taking my kids,” she explained. “It’s just something to pass down from generation to generation. I hear so many stories about how much the drive-in means to people.”
Drive-in theaters are a dying breed. At their peak in 1958, there were more than 4,000 drive-in theaters in the United States. Today, the National Association of Theater Owners estimates there are fewer than 400.
Maichel hopes the Midway will be around for another six decades. Maichel knows she won’t have enough money raised by the end of the drive-in season — the Midway opens on weekend evenings from Memorial Day through Labor Day – so she’ll continue fundraising efforts in the winter months as well.
“We’ve got a golf tournament. We’ve got a dance coming up. We’re going to do a Bingo night,” she said. “We’re just doing different things.”
To date, the Midway Digital Fund volunteers have raised more than $7,600, and the increased efforts are creating packed houses at Midway. Last weekend, the single screen fronted by a lot that will hold about 250 cars was overflowing. Cars were lined up on the side of the highway to get in.
“We had to turn people away, because they were parked on the highway, and the sheriff didn’t like that,” Ann said.
But, they’re happy for the support.
“We never, ever thought we would see what we’re seeing,” Ann said. “It’s just amazing. The people here really, really want to save the drive-in.”
Midway Drive-In is located 29591 W. 327th Street in Osawatomie. The movie screen is Osawatomie, but the mailbox, on the other side of 327th Street, is in Paola. The gates typically open around 7 p.m., but may open earlier this weekend, as moviegoers seek to secure spots. The first showing will be “Monsters University,” which will start sometime after sundown. Ann said it’s typically around 9:30. The second movie this weekend is “Internship.” One ticket admits movie watchers to both films.
For more information about the theater or the fundraising efforts to save it, visit the Midway Drive-In Facebook Page or the Midway Digital Fund Facebook page.