MOUTAIN VIEW — Arkansas’ only remaining drive-in theater that still shows movies on 35mm film will have to close unless the owner can raise $80,000 to buy a digital projector.
Since 1975, Bobby Thompson has run the Stone Drive-In Theater in Mountain View. This November, movie distributors will stop supplying movies on 35mm reels. Most movie theaters already show movies in the digital format.
Through Sept. 8, Honda Motor Co. is sponsoring Project DRIVE-IN. At projectdrivein.com/#vote_19, people can vote for their favorite 35mm drive-in. Honda will award digital projectors to the five drive-ins with the most votes.
Walter Eugene “Shorty” Thompson opened the Stone Drive-In Theater in 1965.
“He ran the the Uptown Theater in Mountain View for seven or eight years before that,” Bobby said. “Dad looked for a piece of land for a long time that had just the right slope for a drive-in theater. I worked here when I was a kid doing cleaning, repairs, running the projectors.”
The Stone Drive-In is on the northwest edge of Mountain View, a short drive back a country lane off Arkansas 87. In the 1970s, Bobby Thompson installed a large plastic sign for the theater. He took the sign down when vandals kept destroying it by throwing bottles from speeding cars.
Surrounded by trees, the 5-acre lot has 150 posts, each with plug-ins for two speakers.
“The screen has always been a headache,” Thompson said. “My dad made it from aluminum house siding. Pieces of the siding blow off in the wind. In 2009, the tornado that came through here blew the middle section down. We rebuilt that part with Zenon siding.”
In the middle of the lot, a small building houses the projection room and the concession stand. Bushes and small trees almost completely hide the front of the building. Thompson keeps a small space cleared for the opening where the projected image shines through.
“I keep it cleared by the projector window and let the rest of it grow,” he explained. “Otherwise, the kids would keep walking up and waving their hands in front of the projector.”
The projector is positioned between the sound system on one side and three large round shelves on the other.
“This is the same projector that was in the Uptown Theater in 1955,” Thompson said. “And it was old then. Dad moved it in here. The reels are shipped in on UPS. [The film comes] in 2,000-foot rolls. There’s usually five to eight reels for each movie. When I get the reels, I take the leaders off and run them together as one continuous roll.”
That roll goes on the middle shelf. He threads the beginning through the projector. When the film comes off the projector, it automatically reels onto the shelf above.
The drive-in’s sound system also came from the Uptown Theater.
“It still runs on vacuum tubes. But that’s good because whenever lightning hits the cell tower over there, all it does is brighten the tubes. It doesn’t burn them out like it would transistors,” Thompson said. “I do all the repairs on the equipment. I can find parts for the projector. I bought a couple of old sound systems off the Internet for parts, but those are harder to find.”
The Stone Drive-In’s loyal patrons are mostly local people, plus a few tourists. Many bring lawn chairs and sit in the aisles.
“Some come in with couches in the back of their trucks. They sit up there to watch the movie. I do well with children’s movies. People from 3 years old to 90 will come to see those features. Big action movies only get people from about age 15 to 45.”
In a typical week, the box office takes in about $1,500, but it can be as much as $10,000.
“You have to send 60 percent of the box office to the picture companies,” Thompson said. “We only do good business in June and July. I close the season when the money I take in doesn’t pay the bills.”
Each night the theater is open, Thompson, who lives next to the theater, comes over about 6 p.m.
“I have to thread up the projector. Then I work the ticket booth to let people in. As quick as I get a break, I run down and turn on the projector. Then I run back and sell more tickets. Nobody has to stay with the projector. It will stop when it gets to the end.”
In between, he also runs the concession stand, except on Friday and Saturday nights, when he has a young lady to help. The stand sells nachos, hot dogs, hamburgers, soft drinks and, of course, popcorn and candy.
How will the Stone Drive-In change if it wins a digital projector from Honda?
“I don’t know anything about digital projectors,” Thompson said. “I’ve never even seen one. But I’ve got a son that went to computer-programming school. He’ll show me. My daughter found out about this Honda contest. I thought there’s no way I would ever have a chance against places up north where there are so many people. But I got a note from Honda saying I was getting votes from all over the country.”
People can vote on the Honda website to save the Stone Drive-In Theater through Sept. 8. They can vote once every day on the Internet, and can also vote each day on their cellphones. For more information about the Stone Drive-In, visit www.stonedrivein.net.
“There are some movies that really are better at a drive-in than at an indoor theater,” Thompson said, “anything that’s like Star Wars or movies that take place mostly outdoors. If you’re out in an open space, it’s like you’re watching a completely different movie — not like when you’re closed up in a theater. When you’re outdoors at a drive-in, you’re out there with them.”