Family navigates changes at drive-in

Mike Spiess collects admission on April 5 before the M-F Drive-In Theater’s season-opening show.

Mike Spiess collects admission on April 5 before the M-F Drive-In Theater’s season-opening show. Photo by Donna Lasater.

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Scott Kimber installs the M-F Drive-In Theater’s new digital projector on April 3.

With their time-honored appearance and familiar amenities, drive-in movie theaters hearken back to years gone by. But they need periodic maintenance to preserve that traditional character, and often require modern upgrades to keep up with the times.

During the wholesome and robust 1950s, families across the country could pile into the station wagon, go to the drive-in and munch on popcorn while they watched the latest Grace Kelly or John Wayne flick. Teens could socialize with their friends while enjoying the show. Couples could go on a date and fall in love SEmD whether they watched the screen or not.

Milton-Freewater still has a classic drive-in, the M-F Drive-In Theater, one of the relative few left in the country. The facility was built in 1953. Dick and Loretta Spiess bought it in the winter of 1961 and opened it in 1962. Dick and Loretta ran the theater — a community and family tradition — for nearly half a century. After their retirement, management of the operation passed to their son Mike, who has been responsible for day-to-day operations since 2009, and his wife, Lorie, who runs the snack bar.

Operating the drive-in all those years was possible because Dick and Loretta Spiess are people with a great work ethic and a family willing to pitch in, Mike and Lorie said. “You just do it yourselves, as a family,” Lorie said.

That remains the strategy, and it’s a win-win for the family and for the whole community — especially the community. Most drive-in movie theaters have disappeared, Mike said, noting that this is one of only four in Oregon, and one of 12 in the Northwest. Nationwide, he estimates, “they are in the high 400s or low 500s. Mostly on the Eastern Seaboard; there are still quite a few in New York.”

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A view of the drive-in.

According to Lorie, the popularity of drive-in theaters was at its peak in the days before videos and VCRs. “There weren’t that many entertainment options” in those days, Mike said.

In modern times, with the easy availability of video on demand and the quality of 3-D movie theaters, the classic drive-in setup has a nostalgic quality. In Milton-Freewater, even the snack bar has stayed pretty much the same over the years. “We have pop, candy and popcorn. And the pizza hasn’t changed much. We still make our own pizza,” Mike said. The cheesy treat is the drive-in’s signature fare. “We have people come out just to buy pizza,” Lorie said.

The film season runs from April through September. In the off-season the drive-in is all about repairs and maintenance, essential to keep the business running. “We get wind damage in the winter; that’s just the way it is,” Mike said. “We get everything cleaned and painted. It’s a 1953 building.”

Lorie added that they still have the original swinging doors on the old building.

Although some elements of the M-F Drive-In Theater have remained relatively stable, changes are inevitable for any operation with roots in the mid-20th century. The Spiess family has had to decide what to keep the same and where to incorporate improvements.

Sometimes, unexpected transitions have been foisted on them, such as in January 2008, when a windstorm destroyed the existing screen. At that point, the Spiesses faced the decision of whether to replace it or to shut down.

“We had family meetings about what we were going to do. People would tell us, ‘You can’t close.’ So many just volunteered to help. It was a heartfelt decision rather than a business decision,” Mike said.

With plenty of well-wishes and the occasional small financial donation from the community, a new screen was installed. That marked a turning point in the operation, a recommitment by Mike and Lorie to the business. “Once we got the new screen we decided we were in it for the long haul,” Mike said, adding that the community’s encouragement was the deciding factor in whether to keep the business open. “It was very affirming for dad. He’d been in business a long time,” Mike said.

Replacement of the screen “started a whole series of events,” Mike said. “Right away we found out we were underinsured. After that, we found out there was a change in the drinking water laws in Oregon so we had to drill a new well.”

Many of the subsequent changes to the facility involved how the movie experience is delivered to patrons. No longer requiring a window-mounted speaker box, the audio is now broadcast via radio, with better quality, Lorie said. “You don’t have to keep the window open.” And although the gravel-covered ramps remain, “we took out the speaker posts; now they can park everywhere,” Mike said. “In the old days of speaker posts we could accommodate 314 cars, now it’s 275.”

The media movies are stored on has itself changed. From the early days of the drive-in through the mid-1970s, Mike explained, the theater used 35-millimeter film, two projectors and a carbon arc light source. In the mid-1970s they began using xenon gas light bulbs. These were an improvement, as they burned with a consistent light and eliminated the use of carbons.

The most recent change, implemented this year, was a shift from film to a digital projector, operated by computer. Initially, Mike and Lorie thought new movies would no longer be available on 35-mm film. At that point they had to weigh between showing only older movies, closing entirely or converting to digital. Switching to digital is supposed to enhance picture quality. It used to be that you just used your eyes and ears — you could tell if something was wrong, they said. Digital video is different: “With this you won’t go back there and find 20 feet of film on the floor,” Lorie said.

Over the years the movies have changed and the audiences have changed as well. “It’s shifted toward more family-oriented movies and the cost is geared more for families,” Lorie said.

“It’s a reflection of society,” Mike said. “In the 1960s and 1970s it was becoming a younger and rougher crowd and security was an issue. Now I don’t even see a disappointed customer. I don’t even remember an issue way back to the mid-1990s.”

In truth, the theater operators don’t select the movies played on its screen. “A booker books the movies and ships the movies to us,” Mike said. This arrangement has necessitated a change in the how admission is charged — from by the carload to by the person. “The money goes to those who provide the films. So they said they wouldn’t send any more movies unless the price was shifted to a per-person charge. “It was against our overall family philosophy but we got the letter from the film company. The money in the ticket booth goes to the film company,” he said.

And naturally, the price of a movie has itself changed. “The earliest cost I remember is three dollars a car, in the early 1960s. Special nights it would be only one dollar for Buck Night,” Mike said. “Now it’s seven dollars a person.”

Despite its modifications, the M-F Drive-In nonetheless remains a place people can go to relive the good old days or form new memories with their loved ones. Mike and Lorie can’t estimate how many couples had a first or second date at the drive-in, but the site has hosted several marriage proposals. “A nervous guy would ask me to announce his proposal over the intercom. And our son asked his fiancee at the drive-in,” Mike said.

They have regular customers who come for movies and pizza. They have gotten movie-goers from Nevada and Idaho who said their children had never been to a drive-in movie so they made the trip for the experience. “We’re filling a niche,” Lorie said.

Karlene Ponti can be reached at 509-526-8324 or karleneponti@wwub.com.

Comments

ryno3019 1 year ago

A special THANK YOU, to the Spiess Family, for all their hardwork and sacrifices. Great environment and experience at a reasonable price. I encourage everyone to make a trip out and support the M-F Drive-In! Enjoy a night with your loved ones....and the Spiess Family!

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USCTrojan 1 year ago

One of the missions of a Parent is to provide good moments/memories for their kids. The Drive-In is one of the best memories of childhood. We're blessed to have the MF Drive-In in our area.

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MissAjB 12 months ago

I did not realize how fortunate the Walla Walla, College Place, Milton-Freewater & surrounding communities are to have this drive-in experience in their own backyard until I relocated. I moved away for a short time to where there was no drive-ins. I definitely missed the drive-in experience. I have been on some outings to the Milton-Freewater Drive-In and I have my own nostalgia associated with it. A big thank you to the family owned & operated local business! Proud and grateful to continue to have a great local business in our area!

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