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July 3, 2014

Nostalgiac drive-in experience stays fresh with modernizations

Third generation of Sherman family in North Ridgeville put love and pride into Aut-O-Rama Twin

By Aaron Cutteridge

"American as apple pie and baseball" used to be a catch phrase to describe a sentiment of American cultural authenticity. Another unique American cultural experience many would add would be watching movies at a drive-in theater.

The drive-in theater was first created in 1933 in Camden, New Jersey. Richard Hollingshead was the builder of that first drive-in and on June 6, 1933, the first movie shown was "Wives Beware," which was a British comedy also known as "Two White Arms."

The drive-in industry began to grow rapidly as car ownership skyrocketed and as little as 25 years later the number of theaters reached more than 4060.

Sherman family Aut-O-Rama Twin continues to thrive with modernizations

In 1965, the Sherman family opened the Aut-O-Rama Drive-In in North Ridgeville, Ohio as a single screen theater.

Drive-in sites are categorized by two factors. The first is being a drive-in site and the second is how many screens they have at the site.

July 4, 1965, the Aut-O-Rama opened for business showing “Mister Moses” with Robert Mitchum and Carroll Baker and “The Rounder” with Henry Ford and Peter Fonda.
Aut-O-Rama — experiencing an early growth upon opening and in 1972 — added a second screen to become the first multi-screen drive-in in the Cleveland area.

The closest drive-in to the Aut-O-Rama was the Memphis Drive-In in Brooklyn, Ohio which opened 11 years earlier in 1954 as a single screen theater. Memphis eventually added two more screens to become known as the Memphis Triple around Cleveland.

Beginning in the late '70s the heyday of the drive-in was over and the industry began to sufwfer and theaters began to close at an alarming rate. A number of factors were conspiring to diminish the once-great icon of Americana.

In the late ‘70s, drive-ins began to feel the pressure from cinema multiplexes and the growing home video availability with the rise of VHS and BETA tape technology. BETA tape eventually would be phased out but VHS became more popular and the opportunities for people to watch movies at home grew.

Many owners reached an age where they wanted to retire and simply had nobody to carry on the theater.

Land development and land worth has been one of the biggest challenges. New home development has crept up to the land on the other side of the railroad tracks that run adjacent to the Aut-O-Rama facility.

The Memphis Triple facility closed because neighboring company American Greetings made them an offer on the land that the owners felt they could not refuse. American Greetings demolished the Memphis Triple and turned over the land and created a sprawling green space for their employees where the Memphis Triple once stood.

“The Memphis wasn’t doing bad business there,” Del Sherman said. “They were doing good business up until they closed.”

“They made the green space a walking path,” Niki Sherman said.

If you look in the right spots around the walking track that American Greetings created in the green space, you can still see the original map posts from the Memphis Triple.

The nights of piling the family in the car and the kids sprawling across the back seat to watch a movie at the drive-in while mom or dad constantly adjusted the volume on the speaker box hanging on the car window to make sure everyone could hear the movie were beginning to fade away.

By the late ‘80s, only a thousand drive-ins remained.

The Shermans persevered and maintained the family business. They were able to improve and update their facility as others were either getting out of the business or going out of business.

“The secret to our success would be catering to what the people want,” Del said. “People need family entertainment and we provide a good family place for people to come [where] it’s safe, it’s economical, we play first-run movies and it’s reasonably priced.”

“It also links generation to generation as you have brought your kids here, chances are you parents brought you here because their parents brought them here," Del said.

In 1979 the Aut-O-Rama was the first drive-in to offer the option for movie-goers to listen to the movie through an AM radio station in the car.

Many drive-ins still have grassy recreation area in front of the large parking lots where some families will bring blankets and have a picnic, or children would run and play games with other children.

Because movie studios collect the majority of the box office revenue, the Sherman family relies heavily on concession stand sales to maintain the facilities and equipment.

The Sherman family did their homework before opening the Aut-O-Rama and opened one of the larger concession stands in the Ohio drive-in business.

As advancements were made to the facilities, the Sherman family also recognized to remain a competitive option to the movie-viewing public, they would need to be proactive with their offerings at the concession stand. The concession stand offers the typical movie theater fare such as popcorn, M & M’s and other candy and the usual selections of soda.

They also offer pizza, hot dogs, hamburgers, vegetarian and vegan options and gluten-free selections.

All drive-ins offered a concession stand of one sort or another. The sizes of the concession stands have changed drastically over the years.

Technology has been a cruel mistress to drive-ins and a key factor in many closing.
The original cameras were cumbersome and expensive to operate but a necessity. The bulbs ran very hot, would burn out easier and required more film changeovers to prevent damaging the film.

Aut-O-Rama consistently upgraded and updated their equipment to furnish movie-goers the best possible experience. In the mid-‘90s, upgrading to Xenon bulbs and offering Dolby FM stereo sound to patrons kept the drive-in experience fresh and exciting with better sound and picture quality.

“We were the first drive-in in Ohio to offer simulcast sound through the FM radio,” Tim Sherman said.

As a first-run theater, Aut-O-Rama also has the opportunity to offer two first-run movies, back-to-back, on both screens. This means the night you want to see “X-Men: Days of the Future Past”, you will get to see “Godzilla (2014)” as the second movie.

Another recent addition to the Aut-O-Rama facility are the ‘Retro Tuesday’s” movie offerings. Most Tuesdays throughout the summer a double-feature of older movies are shown such as “Casa Blanca” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” and “Wayne’s World”, “Outsiders” and “Stand by Me” and even special events like the ‘Christmas in July’ Retro-Tuesday event of “A Christmas Story” and “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation”.

The ‘Christmas in July’ event includes such festivities as meeting the actor who played ‘Randy’ in “A Christmas Story”, the actual Winnebago from “Christmas Vacation”, face painting, a raffle to win a replica Leg Lamp from “A Christmas Story” and, of course, rich chocolate Ovaltine.

“With the conversion to digital we’re now able to show movies we weren’t able to get on film anymore,” Niki said about the adoption of Retro Tuesday’s. “We tried it and it was a huge success for us.”

Aut-O-Rama is able to remain competitive and do events like this because of the upgrade in 2013 to digital cameras. An investment of $140,000 in the equipment alone, the theater now can bring classic movies to the drive-in that no longer exist on film.

“Many drive-ins are in transition right now to the digital cameras because all of the movie studios are moving away from film releases,” Tim said. “Paramount wasn’t going to release ‘Transformers: Age of Extinction’ on film, but went back and converted it for some of the older theaters. Many movies released this year were only in a digital format.”

The theater also hosted a live concert event of Jimmy Buffet this summer, which would have been impossible in the past on the film cameras.

“First time it’s ever been done at this type of facility,” Del said. “It’s going to open up different types of avenues for us to do different types of things with the theater.”

“We would like to do something like they did down at Nautica where they live-simulcast Indians’ games. Not charge people anything but make it like a big bar atmosphere,” Del said.

“The key thing to that is licensing and it’s trying to be worked out,” Tim said.

The hurdles that the drive-in industry faced is wide-ranging that contributed to a total of only 348 theaters remaining.

The drive-in culture is still alive in Cleveland thanks to the passion and efforts of the Sherman family. According to the United Drive-In Theater Owner Association (UDITOA) with some new drive-ins opening and some defunct drive-ins being reopened across the nation, the drive-in is seeing resurgence.

The value of a visit to the drive-in is without question when compared to the offerings of a multiplex. The Aut-O-Rama charges $9 for an adult, every day of the week for every showing. Average ticket prices to a mammoth multiplex like Cinemark, AMC Theaters or Regal Cinemas range from $7.25 for a matinee (typically before 6 p.m.) and $10 for a movie after 6 p.m.

Those prices for the multiplexes are for weekend showings and all in 2D screenings. It is also worth noting that those prices are for one movie.

The one technology the drive-in will probably never adopt, in its current format offerings, is 3D movies. Tim explained there are two styles of 3D presentations right now. One requires a special screen that would not be a good investment for an outdoor theater and the other requires expensive glasses that should be re-used, not disposed of after a viewing.

“For the most part everyone is used to the 3D technology known as Real D 3D and the problem with that is the screen is polarized,” Tim said. “The other thing with 3D is if you are off to the side, you are going to lose the effect of 3D whereas in an indoor theater you are seated in a fashion [conducive] to 3D viewing.”

The multiplexes will have that one advantage if you want to see a movie in a 3D format.

The drive-in is alive and well in America. People are still visiting the drive-in and Aut-O-Rama continues to experience excellent attendance numbers.

This slice of Americana may have been on death’s door, but the life support systems that were keeping some facilities open look to be less necessary as families are discovering these gems in their communities.

Niki and Del know their children are in love with the facility and are already invested in wanting to be a part of the future of the Aut-O-Rama.

“We grew up here. Since my grandfather passed away in 1971, my dad took it over and ran [the theater] until 1993 when he passed away and we pretty much lived here,” Tim said. “We all pulled together and kept the place going and are all very dedicated to keep the theater running. We are in it for the long haul.”