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Unadilla Drive-In

Drive-In Opening For New, Classic Films

Unadilla Drive-In Opening

For New, Classic Films

Spencer Wilson, whose family bought the Unadilla Drive-in in 1999, fearing it would be demolished, says his venue is ideal for social distancing, and he’s anticipating a busy summer. (Ian Austin/AllOTSEGO.com)

By LIBBY CUDMORE • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com

UNADILLA – If you’ve never seen the classics on the big screen, this year, you might get your chance.
“There aren’t any movies being released this summer,” said Spencer Wilson, who manages his family’s Unadilla Drive-In. “But there are tons of options for screening older and classic movies.”

Under Phase One of un-PAUSE, drive-in theaters can open, and Wilson will open The Unadilla on Friday, May 29, showing a double-feature of “Trolls World Tour” and “Jumanji: The Next Level.”
“These are movies that didn’t get a full theater run time,” he said. “We’ll do those for the first few weekends until they run out.”

After that, he said, is when the fun really begins. “With classic movies, you know you’ve seen them, you know you like them,” he said. “But how often do you get to see them on the big screen?”

Wilson is considering doing theme nights, including ’80s classics like “Footloose” or original superhero movies, such as the Adam West “Batman” (1966) and the Christopher Reeves “Superman” (1978).

They could also repeat some of their most popular showings. “The ‘Jurassic Park’ movies are all available,” he said. “Those were always our most popular nights.”

So popular, he said, that in 2015, the “Jurassic World” showing had cars lined up out to the bridge. “We had to park people behind the fence,” he said. “We can fit between 350-400 cars here.”

The “Marvel” movies and the “Lord of the Rings” trilogies are also available, which could make for some long nights. “We have had people fall asleep here!” he said. “I have to go around and knock on their windows to wake them up.”

The Wilsons have owned the drive-in since 1999, when father Eric Wilson purchased it after hearing it might be torn down. It was originally built in 1956, one of two drive-ins, along with the Del-Sego at Emmons, in the area.

This summer, precautions will be taken to assure that social distancing is followed, including reducing capacity to 50 percent. “Normally we can fit two cars between the poles,” he said. “Now, we’ll just have one car.”

Customers will now reserve a space on the drive-in’s website. “We’ll have 100 spots for sale online, and 50 at the gate,” he said. “But if you don’t reserve online, you run the chance of not getting in.”

He stressed that families are still allowed to sit outside their vehicles. “Kids can still run around,” he said. “But we want to make sure everyone is safe.”

The snack bar will also be fully operational, but employees and customers will be required to wear masks, and employees will wear gloves to handle food, credit cards and money. Spaces will also be put in place to make sure that people are standing far enough apart in line, and plexiglass barriers will be erected between the cashiers and the customers.

In addition to movies, Wilson has been in touch with several school superintendents who have expressed interest in holding their graduation ceremonies there.

Under un-PAUSE, movie theaters like the Southside Mall Cinema won’t be able to open until Phase Four – July 1 at the earliest.

“People are chomping at the bit to get outside and do something that’s still legal,” he said. “And we’re the only game in town.”

 

This Year, Graduation Might Be At The Drive-In

This Year, Graduation

Might Be At The Drive-In

Spencer Wilson, Unadilla Drive-In manager, has had several schools reach out and ask if the drive-in would host their graduation ceremonies. (Ian Austin/AllOTSEGO.com)

By LIBBY CUDMORE • Special To AllOTSEGO.com

UNADILLA – With no movies being released this summer, Spencer Wilson, manager of his family’s Unadilla Drive-In, may still be able to bring in the crowds.

“We’ve had more than a dozen schools call us and ask if we would host their graduations,” he said. “We’d love to do it. That could be our whole summer.”

Though the drive-in remains closed under state mandate, Wilson is in conversations with school superintendents – including Unatego, Bainbridge, Harpersville and more – about what would be required to hold a ceremony.

At Unadilla Drive-In, a Family Tradition

At Unadilla Drive-In,

A Family Tradition

Spencer Wilson, Unadilla Drive-In manager, points movie-goers to where the action is. (Ian Austin/AllOTSEGO.com)

By LIBBY CUDMORE • Special To AllOTSEGO.com

UNADILLA

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.”

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21 Railroad Ave. Cooperstown, New York 13326 • (607) 547-6103