By LIBBY CUDMORE • Special To AllOTSEGO.com
Eric Wilson was not about to see a piece of his childhood leveled.
“I was at my men’s group and one of the members was a realtor,” he said. “I saw he had the Unadilla Drive-In listing, and someone said that it might be bought and torn down.”
With his wife, Marcia, and his friend Jack George, who owned a successful leather business in New Jersey, Wilson bought the drive-in. “I was never in it to get rich,” he said. “I used to go there as a kid, and I wanted to make sure it was preserved.”
And preserved it is.
“The first year we screened ‘Runaway Bride’” – the 1999 Julia Roberts/Richard Gere vehicle that critics generally panned – “and even though it was raining, 377 people showed up,” said Eric. “I knew we had something special.”
The drive-in was originally opened in 1956 by John Gardner and Al LaFamme. Michael and
Beatrice Chonka ran it through the ’70s and ’80s. They sold it to Trevor Ladner and Thomas Owens, who sold it to the Wilsons. All of their kids – Spencer, Austin, Tara and Onilee – worked for the business, and now, Spencer is the manager.
“I remember being there as a little kid in the ticket booth!” he said.
At one time, there were two drive-ins in Otsego County, the other being the Del-Sego, where Brooks BBQ got its start selling their famous chicken at the snack bar.
The Wilsons made sure that the Unadilla remained a summer staple for families looking for budget-friendly entertainment, screening first-run movies Thursday-Sunday from May to September.
The movies start at dusk, and for $8 (adults) and $5 (kids) visitors can see two films – if they can stay awake long enough.
“On an average night, we have between 300 and 500 people,” said Spencer. “We had ‘The Lion King’ and ‘Toy Story 4’ a few weeks ago, and we had 1,200 people there.”
“For both ‘Indiana Jones 4’ and ‘Jurassic World’ we had cars lined up to the bridge,” said Eric. “We were completely sold out. Those are good drive-in movies.”
Since taking ownership, the family upgraded the theater considerably. “We fixed all the standing speakers when we first bought it, but people kept driving off with them and pulling them out of the ground!” said Eric.
The 2006 flood destroyed the free-standing speakers, and an FM transmitter was put in. Shortly thereafter, a windstorm took down the screen, requiring a replacement. “My dad and his buddies fixed it,” said Spencer. “They’re contractors, but it was still an expensive upgrade!”
The most recent upgrade has been the switch to a digital projector. “It’s been great,” he said. “There are so many ways a film can go wrong, but with this you just download and press play.”
They’ve always shown double features, and because families are their target audience, they rarely screen R-rated movies, although this year has had two notable exceptions. “We did our first triple feature,” said Spencer. “’The Secret Life of Pets 2,’ ‘A Dog’s Journey’ and ‘John Wick 3’.”
“Next week,” Eric said, “We’ll have ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’,” – this year’s new Quentin Tarantino flick that pairs Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, and revisits the Manson murders.
But one of the biggest draws, said Spencer, is the snack bar. “People tell us they come out just to have dinner,” he said. “Our candy is cheaper than many places, or we let people bring their own food in.”
However, you may still want to save room for their famous popcorn. “We use real butter,” he said. “Not that fake stuff.”