October 28, 2013

Writer to mine nostalgia as Saco Drive-in turns 75

Images are sought for a new book detailing its history.

By Deborah Sayer dsayer@pressherald.com
News Assistant

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.

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