The Saco Drive-in Theater’s 74th season has come to a close, but a campaign to secure photographs and personal remembraces from faithful patrons of the nation’s second oldest outdoor cinema is expected to keep the venue in the spotlight this winter.
Camille Smalley, Dyer Library and Saco Museum collections and research manager, is attempting to compile material for a follow-up to her recently released ebook “After Dusk: A History of the Saco Drive-In.”
The still-untitled book, due to be published in June, will feature the images and commentaries of the countless generations of moviegoers who attended screenings at the landmark Saco Drive-in, as well as an extensive history detailing the venue’s influence in Saco history and commerce, especially the automobile industry there.
The back-to-back books come on the heels of recent resurgence for the Saco Drive-in, which was in danger of being closed after it was announced that Hollywood was going fully digital and would no longer make movies available in the 35 millimeter film reel format used by the drive-in.
That was a problem for Saco Drive-in manager Ry Russell, who leases the theater property and enjoys limited ticket sales during a relatively short summer season.
Russell was unable to come up with the estimated $90,000 price needed to upgrade the drive-in’s projection room to a digital screening format.
Thankfully, he didn’t have to.
Russell applied for and won an $80,000 digital projector system through the American Honda Motor Co.’s Project Drive-In campaign.
The Saco Drive-in was one of just five such theaters across the country to win a new projector system from the automaker, which wanted to preserve the nostalgic link between automobiles and movies for posterity.
As was fitting for this newest generation of theater managers, Russell brought awareness of the drive-in’s plight to the public via another modern type of screening – he posted it on Facebook, in a highly successful social media campaign that united supporters who also wanted to see the drive-in survive.
The new projection system will be added in time for the drive-in’s 75th anniversary season, and will include a new projection booth that is climate-controlled to protect sensitive equipment during harsh Maine winters.
Located on a section of Route 1 known as the Saco Auto Mile, the drive-in was founded in 1939 by a former house painter, the late Eugene Bourgain.
A native of Naples, Italy, Bourgain immigrated to Saco, by way of Queens, N.Y., in the 1930s to realize his dream of opening a drive-in movie theater.
In its heyday, from the 1940s through the 1970s, the outdoor cinema featured a snack bar, picnic tables and play areas for children, including a swing set beneath the jumbo movie screen, where parents could keep an eye on young ones.
In the past few decades, the drive-in’s recreation areas and snack bar have been reconfigured on the property and its individual, pole-mounted speaker system retired for audio using a car’s radio.
While outdoor movie venues can’t compete with the state-of-the-art sound systems and 3D visual effects offered at modern, indoor movie venues, they don’t really need to – going to the drive-in is as much about the experience as it is about seeing a movie.
Patrons load their vehicles with coolers, snacks and lawn chairs and typically head to the viewing lot early to set up camp and hang out in advance of the double feature.
And the memory of these outings is precisely what Smalley is hoping to capture and include in her upcoming book.
“Now that we have successfully saved the Saco Drive-In, courtesy of Honda’s Project Drive-In, it’s imperative we save our oral and photographic history,” said Smalley. “This book will tell the story of the Saco Drive-In as it relates to the history of Saco and how that fits into the greater context of the car culture, recreation and the growth of Saco’s tourist economy.”
“We’d love to hear from people or families who attended the Saco Drive-in, especially from the 1940s through the 1960s when it was a popular pastime,” said Smalley. “But we also want to include the remembrances of all generations who went there.”
Russell agreed, adding, “Its imperative we save all aspects of the drive-in, from the physical projector to our patrons’ experiences here at the theater. Camille wants to capture the experience holistically, through written memories and photographs.”
Smalley noted that the most difficult part of her project has been finding corresponding photographs relevant to the drive-in experience, such as children playing and people socializing amid a backdrop of period automobiles.
Previous attempts to cull those images from museums and other historical archiving organizations have only yeilded images of the drive-in’s big screen – not people or the cars that help tell the story.
Now, Smalley is appealing to the public to submit old photos they may have featuring scenes or people at past outings to the Saco Drive-in.
“They must exist in someone’s attic, photo album or scrapbook,” said Smalley.
Community members are encouraged to dig into their old photographs and jot down some of their memories.
Smalley will convert the images to a digital format and return the original, along with a free digital copy of the image to owners within a two-week period.
Those images should be submitted by the Jan. 31, 2014 deadline.
Written or oral memory submissions can be emailed to Smalley at [email protected] Call 283-3861 Ext. 113 with questions.
For more details, go to www.dyerlibrarysacomuseum.org.