Family gives drive-in theater new lease on life

Allison CollinsThis weekend, the Unadilla Drive-In at 1706 state Highway 7 will screen a triple feature for one price.

At the Unadilla Drive-In at 1706 state Highway 7, manager Spencer Wilson is keeping an old-time tradition up to date.

Wilson, 22, said his parents’ decision to purchase the drive-in in 2000 saved it from commercial development. The outdoor theater opened its gates in May 1956.

“I think the town was going to turn it into a trailer park or used-car lot,” he said. “So, my dad decided to step in.”

Since purchasing the drive-in, Wilson said, his family has renovated and improved its screen, grounds, concessions and screening equipment.

“A bunch of stuff happened after we bought it,” Wilson said. “In 2002, we switched the area of the ticket booth and decided to stop using (the old ticketing building) and built the new one as an addition to the snack bar.”

“In 2006, there was the flood, and we lost all the wiring for the poles, so all the speakers got destroyed, but we still use the poles as parking separators," he said. "Shortly after that, the screen went down and blew over, so we replaced it with all steel.”

One of the drive-in’s most significant advancements, Wilson said, was digitizing.

“One or two years after the screen, that was when all theaters got rid of film and decided to move to digital,” he said. “We had to upgrade to a digital projector or shut down.”

Wilson said soon-to-come improvements include a new popcorn machine, carpeting and paint in the concessions stand.

Wilson, the third of Marcia and Eric Wilson’s four children, said, as natives of Unadilla and Bainbridge, keeping the drive-in alive mattered.

“We get a lot of people coming in that try to visit as many drive-ins around the country as they can,” he said. “And for others, it’s a family tradition and now they’re bringing their kids.”

“It’s everybody — from people in their 70s to little kids,” he said. “I think the nearest (drive-in) is up an hour past Albany, so there’s nothing else like this around. I hear of people coming from as far as Albany and Binghamton … and definitely Unadilla, Sidney, Bainbridge and we’ve actually been getting a lot of kids from Oneonta before they leave to go home from college.”

The Unadilla Drive-In, Wilson said, can accommodate about 400 cars a night, though it averages 100 vehicles per screening. Weather permitting, the drive-in is open from late April through Labor Day and, he said, employs about 10 area high school and college students each season.

Though his siblings have all played roles in the drive-in’s continued operation, Wilson said, he’s happiest at the helm.

“It’s been a family tradition,” he said, “but I would say I’ve shown the most interest in everything over the years. All of us grew up working there since we were old enough to help with taking tickets, since we were 5 or 6.”

Though the drive-in offers a nostalgic movie-going experience, Wilson said, its on-screen selections stay current.

“A lot of people have the idea that we show old-school movies,” but we usually get first runs,” he said.

While bigger blockbusters mean higher licensing fees, Wilson said, he “does his best to get the big movies.”

Popular screenings this season, he said, have included “Avengers: Endgame” and Disney’s live-action “Aladdin.” Later this summer, Wilson said, moviegoers can look forward to “Toy Story 4,” “The Lion King” and “Spider-Man: Far from Home.”

Typically, he said, a night at the drive-in includes a family-friendly film and a second, more adult-oriented option.

“This weekend, for the first time ever, we’re doing a triple feature,” he said. The lineup includes “The Secret Life of Pets,” “A Dog’s Journey” and “John Wick 3.”

The Unadilla Drive-in is open Fridays and Saturdays and, after local schools let out, on Sundays. The first flick starts at dusk and gates open at 7 p.m.

For more information, find “Unadilla Drive-In” on Facebook, visit drive-in.ws or call 369-2000.

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