After 50 years, Stanford Drive-In still a crowd pleaser

July 12, 2004|EMILY TOADVINE

Most of the people attending the July 4 showing of "Spiderman 2" at the theater on Ky. 78 said that they have a love affair with drive-ins. They like the relaxed, family atmosphere.

Alice Belcher of Danville says it's a different kind of date.

"I don't have to put my makeup on. I can wear my pajamas if I want to."

Her date, Jeff Messer, also of Danville, says he likes staying in his truck.

"We don't have to sit right next to somebody in the movie theater."

Seated in a nearby pickup, Rachel Brown and Chris Cooper didn't mind exiting the cab. They had the truck bed cushioned with a comforter and pillows. Brown is no stranger to watching movies at the drive-in. She sees them all because her family owns the farm that adjoins the theater.

Cooper says he likes coming because it's a change of pace from the indoor theater. He thinks several people feel the same way.


"You can come out here any Friday or Saturday night and they're having to turn away people. I think the drive-in is starting to come back," he says, noting that the drive-in in Somerset was packed when he recently was in that town.

A reasonable price - $5 per adult and children 10 and under free - means that little children are everywhere. Henry and Irene Knight, of Harrodsburg, didn't bring any children, but they do think it's a bargain.

"It's just getting outside and the price is reasonable," says Henry Knight.

They're no strangers to bargain hunting at the drive-in because it doubles as a flea market on Saturdays and Sundays. Henry Knight buys DVDs there, but he never knows what he will find.

"It's something new all the time," he says.

Whereas most of the people live in Stanford or a neighboring county, Randall and Kay Thomas brought their three children from Frankfort. Randall Thomas noticed "Spiderman 2" advertised on the marquee on one of his many trips to Cedar Creek Lake to fish.

"She and I both love drive-ins," he says of his wife.

"It's the nostalgia of it all," Kay Thomas says.

Their children didn't mind their introduction to the outdoor theater, especially the concessions. Their oldest son, 6-year-old Nicholas, said his corn dog was "Great," and he was considering having a second one.

Working up a sweat frying food in the concession stand is where the drive-in's co-owner Linda Downs usually can be found. It's been her battle station for 33 years. She helps serve a variety of food, from ice cream cones to burgers and onion rings.

"They love our jalapeno munchers," she says of the concoction she describes as like hash browns with cheese in it. "We make our own chili sauce."

Her co-workers affectionately call her Big Linda. It cuts down on confusion with her co-worker, Linda Rogers, who is a few inches shorter. She goes by Little Linda.

After 20 years of working at the drive-in, Rogers is as much a fixture as Downs.

"I love it here. This is home. This is Mom," she says of Downs.

In many ways, it is a family affair. Downs relies on her husband, William. Danny Spangler, who has been co-owner for 27 years, gets a lot of help from his wife, Carolyn. One of Downs' grandsons runs the projectors.

They've experienced some ups and downs through the years, such as 1996, when a tornado demolished the concession stand and caused other damage. Despite these setbacks, Stanford's drive-in, which opened in 1952, manages to be one of the 14 surviving in the state.

This year, they're doing more than staying afloat. The owners are experiencing one of their best seasons. Being able to show first-run movies is attracting customers by the droves.

"They just started treating drive-ins like a walk-in theater. We've always been second on the list," says Downs.

"Shrek 2" was the first movie this year.

"Shrek was astronomical. There's no comparison to anything we've shown," says Downs.

First-run movies have to be guaranteed to show three weeks for three days a week, but Downs says that hasn't hurt business.

"We showed 'Shrek' for three weekends and we had to turn them away the last night," she says, noting that when the 160 spaces are filled, people still park off the road and walk in with blankets and chairs.

Having the flea market open in 1985 also has kept the drive-in hopping, Downs says.

"As soon as we got the flea market built, it was like 'Hey, let's go to the drive-in.'"

She starts her weekends at 6:30 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays and only gets a short afternoon break before returning to run the concession stand until almost midnight. This is the first year they've been open on Sundays, too. She'll keep up the pace until Labor Day.

With business booming, it's likely that the drive-in will see many more seasons, but Downs doesn't guarantee she'll be involved.

"We could be open later, but we get tired quick," she says. "We'd like to retire. We'd like to sell it."

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