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The Auburn-Garrett drive in

One of the last drive-in theaters in northern Indiana (and one of the best movie-going bargains around) holds it own against daylight savings time

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2006-07-10


In the great daylight savings debate, one of the sited benefits of coordinating with the eastern standard time zone in our section of Indiana was that more daylight hours would be good for business. We don’t like change much, and the thin sliver of sunlight that can still be seen past 9:30 pm is still making us uneasy (“it’s still light after nine o’clock?! Next thing ya know, they’ll give women the vote!”), so we’ll have to wait until the data is tallied and the figures are added up to find out whether or not more daylight has had a significant impact on local businesses. But that extra hour of daylight has definitely hindered one area of business in particular…

“All drive-in theater owners in Indiana were dreading daylight savings time,” says Bruce Babbitt, operator of the Auburn-Garrett drive-in (and a different Bruce Babbitt than the one who was Clinton’s Secretary of the Interior). “We’re slugging through it. It’s not the death-knell we thought it was going to be, but it is adding to the payroll, and it probably is cutting in to the bottom line a little bit. We’re not turning people away like we did a couple years ago on Friday and Saturday nights.”

The Auburn-Garrett drive-in (located on State Road 8 in Garrett) is probably one of the best movie-going bargains around. The price of a single ticket ($6 for adults) gets you two first-run, A-list flicks, and children under 11 get in free. The speaker posts you may remember from the glory days of the drive-in are long gone, of course; the sound now comes via your radio.

The price is nice, and the whole set-up is unbeatable, especially for families. The “pros” at the Auburn-Garrett drive-in really know how to make a night of it. “People come in with vans and SUVs, park backwards, open up their hatchbacks, break out the card tables and picnic chairs and futons,” Babbitt says. “They’re all sitting outside. It’s like a big tailgate party now.”

The party is a just little more subdued these days compared to what it was last summer. Last year’s 8 or 8:30 pm starting time usually let the drive-in fit both features and an intermission in before 1 am. Now, the movie starts around 9:30. It has thrown off the concession side of the business, too, which is where most theaters make their profits. With the later starting times and later intermission, people don’t seem to buy as much soda, popcorn, etc.

So, like Babbitt says, Eastern time hasn’t been as bad as he feared, but business is off, especially on week nights. “People still have to get up and go to work the next day, so a lot of people will leave after the first feature,” he says. “Some of the young people will stay, but the families… it’s hard for them to stick around for the whole evening.”

“But God bless ‘em, they’re still coming out, still supporting us,” Babbitt adds. “They don’t want to see us leave.”

Babbit has seen his share of tough times in the theater business. He bought the Auburn-Garrett drive-in in the late 80s, a dismal time for the drive-in business — video rental had really started taking off, the indoor theaters were getting bigger, and the majority of drive-ins across the country were closing (Babbitt estimates there are probably 23 operating screens in Indiana).

Drive-ins had sort of lost whatever glamour or novelty they had by the 80s anyway. Then, suddenly, business came back, and Babbitt recalls a night in 1989 where he realized something was changing. “One Saturday night, all of a sudden we had 150 cars. That was capacity then, before radio sound. It just kept getting better from then on.” What saved the drive-in, or at least the Auburn-Garret drive-in, was the return of families looking for a relatively inexpensive night out. They could bring their own food, spread out a little bit, and kick back in comfort. Really young children could fall asleep in the back seat (or at least cry and fuss without bothering anybody).

Babbitt also owns the Garrett Silver Screen Cinema and the Kendallville Strand Theatre. He bought the Strand, an 1890s opera house that was turned into a movie theater in the 20s, in 2001. Babbitt’s first theater job had been at the Strand, and he thought Kendallville had some connection to the theater. That same year, the Rave opened, and even the more modern multiplexes were hit pretty hard. “If you had told me five years ago that the one thing that was going to separate the men from the boys was stadium seating, I would have just gone into delirium,” Babbitt says. “I would have thought… what? It isn’t the sound anymore, it isn’t the cup holders on the armrests, it’s wall-to-wall screens and stadium seating.”

Babbit is a businessman, and doesn’t strike you as the kind of guy to make decisions based on anything other than a business strategy. Still, for someone to own a couple of downtown theaters and a drive-in at a time when the jillion screen mega-plex — what Babbit calls “cookie-cutter auditoriums” — has become the standard movie-going experience, there has to be something else in it for him. “These theaters still have some architectural character,” he says of the Strand and the Silver Screen Cinema. “They’re rich in history, and they’re still functional. I like the style and character of the buildings, and to do anything else to it would just… I consider them historic, and I always wanted to keep them the way were pretty much built.”

The Auburn-Garrett drive-in probably doesn’t have much architectural character (it’s a big parking lot with a screen in front), but judging from the hundreds of cars that show up on weekend nights, it definitely has its admirers. Babbitt says that so far, he doesn’t think he’s going to have to resort to the kind of tactics he’s heard about at other Indiana drive-ins — like charging people to bring their own food in (with the car searches that entails) or admission for children under 11. “I want to keep doing that for as long as I can. It’s a heck of a deal. You can’t go anywhere these days and get your kids in for free.”

And though business has fallen a little bit, and Babbitt says he wouldn’t mind seeing Indiana go on Central time, he can remember the bad old days. “I can remember when business was really crummy — we do more business now in a night than I used to do in a week in the 80s. I’m just grateful for the business we’re getting and the customers who are still supporting us. They’re still driving through the gate.”

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