Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Small Town Drive-In Theater Near Highway 83 in a Fight for its Life

The Pheasant Drive-In, Mobridge, SD.
The problem many are facing is the demise of 35mm film, which is soon to be replaced by the digital format.
Distributing giant film reels is costly for  Hollywood studios. Digital copies, meanwhile, can be sent on discs or online. So it is easy to see why the big movie-makers are eager to phase out film.
The problem is that the studios are passing on the cost to convert theaters to digital to the theater owners. 
Big city movie theaters owned by the major chains have the money to do so and have made the transition. Small town movie houses are being asked to buy $80,000 digital projectors, which for many of these family owned businesses, is a huge cost.
It doesn’t seem very fair considering how many millions the studios rake in every weekend, and how much money they are going to be saving.
This summer, Sony and Honda teamed up to promote a contest to save five drive-in movie theaters. It asked folks to vote online or by texting. The top five vote getters would receive a free digital projector.
There are only two remaining drive-in movies on Highway 83 in Abilene and Weslaco, Texas. Neither were participating in the contest, so the Highway 83 Chronicles and the Fans of U.S. Route 83 Facebook page adopted the Pheasant Drive-In at Mobridge, South Dakota, and started a vote-getting campaign. The drive-in is about 20 miles west of Highway 83 near the Standing Rock Reservation and Cheyenne River Reservations, so it serves many communities in Potter, Walworth and Campbell counties on Highway 83, and perhaps beyond. (People such as myself will drive 100 miles or more to experience a movie under the stars.)
The contest expanded to nine projectors, but despite our best efforts, the Pheasant Drive-In did not win.
I called Pheasant Drive-In owner Ron Maier to ask him what his next move will be.
Maier has owned the Pheasant Drive-In since 1976. It has been in its present location since 1960 when it was moved there after the Oahe dam flooded the original site.
Maier has experienced the vagaries of operating an outdoor business on the High Plains. A wind storm blew down the screen last year, and the money he had saved to buy a digital projector was spent to repair it. The second to last weekend of this season got wiped out from Winter Storm Atlas, which we all know was a record breaker.
The last he has heard, 35mm film will be in use until about mid-2014.
“So that gives us about another six to eight months to think,” he said.
One idea is to see if Sony has more digital projectors it has purchased for the contest at bulk prices. He has also thought about sharing a digital projector with the indoor movie theater he owns, but he’s been told that isn’t feasible.
He may also look around for a second-hand projector.
The contest may also be revived. Honda-Sony did not disclose to the 96, or so participants where they came in on the voting. Maier hopes that if they do it again, there might be a category for the theaters in rural, low population areas such as his.
Photo by Stew Magnuson
The good news for the Pheasant, and other small town drive-ins, is that once a screen goes digital it opens up a whole new world of possibilities. Drive-ins are now doing theme nights, showing 1970s or 1980s movie double features, and screening fan favorites like Grease. One Virginia drive-in opened up on a normally slow night to stream in Monday Night Football. It didn’t charge for tickets, but raked in lots of money from the concession stand.
Finally, I will leave with two pictures of what is at stake. I came across the sign for the Cactus Drive-in in Pharr, Texas, in 2009. Since the sign was still there, right on Highway 83, I assumed that it had been torn down recently.
In fact, it went out of business in the late 1970s. I found this historic picture recently, which shows exactly what was lost. Note the beautiful painting on the exterior. It billed itself as the world’s most beautiful drive-in theater. And now it’s gone. The lot where it sat was still empty. What a tragedy.

To join the Fans of U.S. Route 83 group on Facebook, CLICK HERE. And check out the U.S. Route 83 Travel page at

Stew Magnuson (stewmag (a) is the author of Wounded Knee 1973: Still Bleeding: The American Indian Movement, the FBI, and their Fight to Bury the Sins of the Past published by the Now & Then Reader. It is available as an eBook on Kindle, Nook, Kobo and iTunes. Buy it in paperback on Amazon or bookstores such as Plains Trading Company Booksellers, in Valentine, Neb., on Highway 83.  


CLICK HERE: The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas. 

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