There’s no doubt that Americana nostalgia is alive and well in the Hudson Valley: Numerous diners are bedecked with vinyl and chrome, retro antique stores abound and classic cars start popping up like flowers as soon as the April rain stops falling. But perhaps the most unusual vestige of a bygone era is the area’s number of active drive-in theaters. Though US drive-ins once numbered in the thousands, fewer than 350 remain active; but the Greenville Drive-In Outdoor Cinema has stuck it out since its opening in 1959.
Owner Dwight Grimm says that he believes the drive-in was “fairly consistently” open until 2007, when film studios made the switch to digital cinema, leaving theaters with old 35mm projectors in a rough spot. The previous owners managed to keep the place running, albeit somewhat sporadically, until Grimm and his wife Leigh Van Swall took over operations in 2015, bringing with them a digital projector.
While its lineup consists largely of popular classic movies, the theater certainly isn’t stuck in the past. It’ll be kicking off its 2016 season with a Grand Opening celebration on May 6 for the launch of a new Projectionists’ Club beer garden and performing area. The evening will conclude with a screening of Breakfast at Tiffany’s on the drive-in’s 80-foot-wide screen, but not before a soirée in the decadent spirit of Holly Golightly featuring champagne, oysters and live music co-presented by the 23Arts Initiative’s Catskill Jazz Factory.
The event will start at 5 p.m. on Friday, May 6, with a ribbon-cutting at 6. Oyster-shuckers Ian Wile and Rosalie Rung of Little Creek Oysters will be preparing local and sustainably raised oysters fresh to order at 6:30 p.m., to be served alongside Gimonnet Gonet champagne from France and other assorted snacks. South African jazz vocalist Vuyo Sotashe will begin his performance at 7 p.m., followed by the screening at 8:45, during which the bar and concessions stand will remain open.
In addition to the new beer garden, which will serve local brews and occasionally host discussions with the brewmasters themselves, the Greenville Drive-In has a few other features that make it unique. The lot can accommodate up to 225 cars, and with its Pup Pass, you can even bring the dog (so long as he’s a quiet moviegoer). The gates open two hours before the show, giving the audience plenty of time to check out the beer garden and the snack selection and to enjoy the theater’s “Why-Fi,” a collection of trivia books and a set of World Book encyclopedias for some unplugged entertainment.
The owners are passionate about promoting local business and enriching the community, so the theater is a member of the Taste NY partnership and the snack shack is stocked with locally sourced foods whenever possible. And the food isn’t all that’s local: The drive-in is partnering with emerging filmmakers for screenings accompanied by discussions. On May 29, Greenville will be hosting the theatrical premiere of The Irish Catskills: Dancing at the Crossroads, a documentary by Kevin Ferguson that aired on PBS earlier this year. The screening will include a discussion with the filmmaker and live Irish music. Then, on June 5, it’ll be screening Dirt! The Movie, a documentary based on the book by local author William Bryant Logan. The theater is collaborating with herbalists and other nature-lovers for what Grimm describes as “a bit of a dirt festival, as it were.”
For anyone who wants to see a movie on the big screen, but doesn’t want to be beholden to this year’s new releases, Greenville also offers themed double features. It’ll be screening The Princess Bride and Labyrinth one weekend in June, and Men in Black and Independence Day just in time for Independence Day. At $5 per person for anyone over age 5, the price beats chain theaters. And if the selection isn’t to your liking, you can always make a suggestion. “We’re trying to be a little more interactive than a traditional cinema model,” says Grimm. “We’re basically taking requests from the audience.” The revamped drive-in is something of an audience request itself: Prior to acquiring the cinema, Grimm had noticed the scarcity of “community gathering spots” and an interest in local forums in reviving drive-ins. “We could not have opened if not for the community support,” he says, noting that the theater’s return was funded in part by a Kickstarter campaign.
It’s perhaps unsurprising that New Yorkers are seemingly eager to revive these theaters. Although New Jersey is often credited as the originator of drive-ins in the US, Grimm claims that Schoharie screened the first silent drive-ins in 1917 and the first “talkie” in 1931. In what Grimm calls “the birthplace of outdoor cinema,” a new era of drive-in is emerging.
Greenville Drive-In grand opening celebration with oysters, champagne, jazz and Breakfast at Tiffany’s screening, Friday, May 6, 5 p.m., reservations required, $50; 10700 Route 32, Greenville, NY 12083, (518) 966-2177; www.drivein32.com.