SODA SPRINGS — Thousands of drive-in theaters once lined the country during their heyday in the 1950s. But today there are fewer than 400 left, and many of those may close this year due to the the fact that the movie industry is going digital.
The upgrade is expensive for drive-ins — many of which work hard just to break even, and don’t have the extra money they need to buy the digital equipment that can cost $80,000 or more.
As a result, drive-ins are quickly becoming a piece of American history. But at least one local town is doing everything it can to ensure its drive-in has a place in the future — even if community members have to find a way to pay for the digital upgrade themselves.
The Idan-Ha Drive-In has been a part of Soda Springs for nearly 60 years, but Jeff Bowen, who currently runs the business, said it may close for good this summer.
“Film companies are moving into the digital world (and they’re going to stop) producing film altogether,” Bowen said, adding that there isn’t anyway for the drive-in to get a loan or pay for the upgrade itself since the business only makes enough to cover its expenses and pay for minor repairs.
Bowen runs the drive-in mostly as a hobby and said he is ready to retire, but he already has someone lined up to take over the venture if it doesn’t close. And he doesn’t want to see the outdoor theater — one of the only sources of entertainment in the city of roughly 3,000 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau — disappear.
“I hate to see it go, but I don’t have the money personally to save it,” Bowen said.
That’s where the community comes in.
The outdoor theater has entered Honda’s Project Drive-In competition for one of five digital projectors, which could solve the problem. But the outcome will depend on the number of votes the business gets in the next two weeks.
AJ Parker, manager of the drive-in, said people can vote by texting “VOTE27” to 444999 each day, or visiting ProjectDriveIn.com/vote_27. Although winning the competition would be the easiest way to solve the Idan-Ha Drive-In’s difficulties, those hoping to save the outdoor theater are already looking for other fundraising opportunities just in case.
Sandy Fugate, chairman of the recently organized Save the Idan-Ha Drive-In Committee, said they are hoping to raise at least $60,000, which should be enough to purchase some used digital equipment.
The committee is already talking to people with experience in fundraising and grant writing. And they’ve also set up an account at Advantage Plus Federal Credit Union in Soda Springs for donations to the cause; in addition, people can mail donations to CDF/Save Idan Ha Drive-In, P.O. Box 892, Soda Springs, ID, 83276.
Fugate said they are planning a community meeting that will take place at City Park at 7 p.m. on Tuesday to share their ideas and get more people involved; in case of inclement weather, the meeting will be moved to The Teen Center.
Fugate said they are also using the Save the Idan-Ha Drive-In Facebook page to keep people updated. The page had close to 200 members on Thursday.
“It got over 1,000 ‘likes’ in just a short time,” she said.
Bowen said all of the drive-in's proceeds on Sept. 2, including donations, will go to the cause. And all of the employees have agreed to donate their time on that day.
“I think it’s amazing,” Bowen said, adding that he’s grateful for the community’s support no matter how things turn out.
Fugate said the drive-in means a lot to locals and to her personally. She’s been watching movies there for 42 years, she said, adding that she used to travel all the way from Bear Lake County to patronize the business before she moved to Soda Springs 12 years ago. And she’s not alone.
“We do draw people from Pocatello,” Bowen said, adding that they’ve also had customers from Preston, the Bear Lake area and Star Valley, Wyo. And people driving through the area will actually delay their trip to stay and watch a movie at the drive-in, Fugate said.
“It amazes me that there are people out there who have never been to one. They’ll put their traveling on hold so their families can experience this
thing,” she said.
Although Soda Springs does have an indoor theater as well, which Parker also works at, he said there is something special about going to the drive-in.
“At indoor theaters you’re confined to your space and have to worry whether you’re bothering anyone, but at a drive-in nobody cares because you’re in your own vehicle,” Parker said, adding that people can answer their cell phones, move around, eat burgers and fries and even smoke if they want to. “There’s nothing like it.”
“It’s a place for people to come and get some entertainment. They sit out on lawn chairs and pile in the back of cars ... (and then they talk) about how much fun they had,” he said.
Bowen sold the drive-in property to Craig Davis in 2010, with the condition that he could continue running the business. And the Davis families who now own the outdoor theater say they also want to keep it open.
“This American icon with a family friendly atmosphere has provided many years of memories for many local families in Southeast Idaho,” according to an emailed statement from the Davis families. “We are determined to keep the theater operating well into the future if possible. We appreciate the support of the community and we will continue to research all options.”