Star-filled skies, the scent of buttered popcorn and families gathered in their old hatchbacks. These are scenes straight off the property of the Sunset Drive-in. For Colchester residents craving a trip down memory lane, the drive-in offers a conduit to simpler times and has done so for 70 years.
“I knew it was going to be my destiny,” said Peter Handy, the second-generation owner of the theater.
Handy took over the drive-in in 1980. It had operated since his father, Ernest Handy, bought the space from developers, before it was completed, in 1948. Ernest owned The State Theater in downtown Burlington (where the Farmhouse restaurant now stands) prior to opening the Sunset Drive-in.
For Peter, it’s a family affair. He said his daughters are interested in operating the theater in the future. “Hopefully they’ll stay interested in it,” he added.
Although other area theaters charge between $9.75-12 for one film, the Sunset Drive-in offers viewers two films for $10.
“When you come to the drive-in you’re paying for the first show, and the second show is really a bonus,” Handy said, adding the experience of going to a drive-in keeps people coming. “Unlike a movie theater where you’re cooped up, here you can stretch out; it’s a family event rather than sitting alone in a seat.”
For Jennifer Foster, seeing a movie at the Sunset Drive-in is a summer tradition. Foster grew up in Essex and has been coming for nearly 40 years. On a recent visit, she brought her daughter, Emma, 10, and four of her school friends to see “Incredibles 2.”
“The first time I ever brought them here I said, ‘This is the same guy who has been here at the booth for years since I was a kid,’” Foster said. “They think it’s really cool that it’s the same person.”
Foster’s experience was highlighted by her preparedness. She pulled bug spray, lanterns, glow sticks and snacks from her car as she reflected on her past visits.
“It’s just the nostalgia of remembering being a kid and coming to the drive-in and then remembering coming when I had my own vehicle and being a teenager,” she said. “It’s one of those things that’s on your bucket-list of something you have to do this summer.”
Handy’s business hasn’t made it through seven decades without challenge. In 2010 Handy was faced with what he referred to as the “digital dilemma.” At the time, theaters were making the switch from film to digital projection systems. According to Handy, studios were paying theaters to convert.
“There was no such help for drive-in theaters,” he said. “We realized that the drive-in can’t afford to pay for four digitals so we waited until it was absolutely necessary. In the meantime we built the Starlight Inn to help us pay for them.”
Built in 2014, the inn is a motel with 11 movie star-themed rooms. Handy said the motel is “very successful” and saved him from closing the drive-in.
Today, the drive-in is equipped with four digital projectors, which Handy said enhance the clarity, brightness and resolution of films to Blu-ray quality.
“Now the movie comes in a little package about the size of a VCR tape, compared to 80 pounds of [film] canisters,” he said. “Film had to be assembled one reel at a time and spliced together. This [digital] is like a VCR. You just plug it in, download it, ingest it into the system and then press play.”
Handy said he misses film for the nostalgic experience it provided, but “in that regard only.” He said digital is better in all aspects than its counterpart.
The drive-in operates from late April to June weekends only, then everyday from June to the end of August, resuming the weekend schedule through October.
On a recent Thursday night, Handy took to the ticket booth and prepared for moviegoers to arrive as the sky faded from blue, to pink, to black. In his snack bar, 70th anniversary commemorative T-shirts are sold as a nod to his family’s legacy.
“It’s reliving the past greatest form of entertainment, today.” Handy said. “We’re preserving the past.”