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Drive-ins at 75

Family-owned theaters among last of dying breed

May 25, 2008
By RICHARD NILSEN, The Leader-Herald
While Bill and Darci Wemple were running video stores back in the early 1990s, they would “sneak out” and go to drive-in movies every chance they got.

“My husband dreamed of owning an old movie ‘palace’ or drive-in,” Darci Wemple said Tuesday. “While we were looking for an older movie house to buy, the El Rancho [in Palatine Bridge] became available in 1996, so we bought that.”

Since the couple lived in Broadalbin, they wanted to purchase a drive-in closer to home. They were looking at the Vail Mills Drive-in when a large piece of property became available just east of that location on Route 29. They opened the Ozoner there in August 2003.

The Wemples went to Albany recently where the New York State Assembly and Senate passed a resolution proclaiming June 4, 5 and 6 as “Drive-In Theater Weekend” or “Hollingshead Weekend.” Richard Hollingshead Jr. opened the first drive-in theater in Camden, N.J., on June 6, 1933.

Darci Wemple said the Ozoner 29 has been a dream in the making for her and her husband.

“It began with an empty field and has developed into what we hope generations to come will always remember [as] their drive in,” she said.

According to Wemple, the word “ozoner” was first coined by Variety Magazine in the 1950s to denote a theater as being an “outdoor” type.

“Since the new project was to be located on Route 29, it seemed the drive-in named itself,” she said.

Darci Wemple said FM-transmitted sound and double screens are among the newest innovations at the drive-ins. The theaters can now show two different sets of double features on two separate radio frequencies.

She said the snack bar also has changed from the old drive-in style. The two-story building has food service and restrooms located on the ground floor, and the projection booth is located upstairs. Because the snack bar services two screens, there are walk up windows on each side of the building facing its adjoining field.

Wemple said in spring 2004, she and her husband planted 94 pine trees, along with 450 feet of rosebush hedge along the driveway.

“I just wish one of us had more of a green thumb,” she said.

The Wemples have involved their family in the theaters, with daughter Briane, 14, and son Devin, 16, helping out in recent years. The Ozoner operates daily during schools’ summer vacations, while the El Rancho is open on weekends — when the family splits up to run the two theaters.

“My husband, [Bill Wemple’s] mom and my daughter run one theater while [me] and my son and sister-in-law run the other,” Darci Wemple said.

Over the years, she said, the theater-going public has changed in their viewing habits.

“When we opened at the El Rancho, we could have two-week old movies and sell out,” she said. “Now, people are more anxious to see newer movies.”

Wemple said drive-ins tend to be more “family friendly” with grandparents, teenagers and children sharing the experience.

“It’s kind of cool watching the field fill up with all kinds of people,” she said. “It seems the movie title isn’t as important as the experience itself.”

Even with a down economy, Wemple said, people still want to go out to the movies. With two movies for the price of one, she said traditionally, drive-ins have always done well in economic down-turns.

“Drive-ins thrive in bad economic times,” she said. “Indoor theaters have expensive leases and more employees to pay. We are family run and can concentrate on the fun side.”

With good weather projected for the Memorial Day weekend, and near lock of a box-office smash in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull opening, Wemple said she is looking forward to the “first decent opening weekend since we opened.”

Wemple said the Ozoner will have giveaways connected to the 75th anniversary this summer, including T-shirts and “blanky-mugs with 75th anniversary stickers.”

“We expect Elvis to show up as part of the show as well,” she said.

Wemple said she tries to keep the drive-ins fresh to attract customers.

“We have so many long-term plans for the new drive-in,” she said. “Every new season we hope to add something new and improved. The 2005 season saw the addition of a pavilion, as well as overhangs for the snack bar windows. The pavilion hosts our sock-hop/Elvis nights.”

Wemple said the El Rancho was built in 1951 and has run continuously since its opening in 1952. At the front of the field, El Rancho’s 60-by-90-foot screen is the first and only the drive-in has had. In the center of El Rancho’s 400-car lot sits the concession stand, with its traditional flat roof and classic powder-blue tiled floor.

Wemple said two things have changed at El Rancho. There are no longer speakers attached to car windows to hear the movie. Everything is now heard through FM radios. Before the movie begins, “oldies” music is played. Then, as the show begins, the music ends and movie fills your vehicle.

“You gotta love a drive-in,” Wemple said.

Richard Nilsen is a general assignment reporter and can be reached at

Article Photos

The Leader-Herald/Bill Trojan

Bill Wemple, co-owner of the Ozoner in Broadalbin, feeds the Indiana Jones film into the projector Thursday.



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