The Skyview Drive-In theatre in Lancaster operates as a hallmark of Americana culture

The Skyview Drive-In theatre in Lancaster operates as a hallmark of Americana culture

At the Skyview Drive-In movie theatre, a bright white and seamless screen defiantly stands the test of time. The scent of fresh popcorn flows throughout the gravel parking lot as Elvis’ “Hound Dog” rocks through the air. Children run and play in the grass under the screen. Some tune their car radios to the theatre’s frequency, but most attach a speaker to their window sill. A voice comes over the airwaves to announce that the show will be starting soon. The national anthem plays out, surprising the uninitiated. A pause…then the movie begins.

For the last 69 years this is how every show has begun. The Skyview Drive-In Theatre in Lancaster has been entertaining area residents for the better part of the past century with its throwback hit songs, expansive yet inexpensive menu and one-of-a-kind viewing experience.

Constructed in 1948 by the late Carlos Crum, the theatre is now the only drive-in left in Southeast Ohio. The Skyview is also one of about 400 drive-ins still operating in the U.S., down from 4,000 in the 1950s heyday of the drive-in theatre, and one of two in the country built with slate screens.

COME ONE COME ALL

The Skyview’s long tenure is due to the care and passion that owner Walt Effinger brings to the job, and that enthusiasm has spread throughout the community.

Jason and Tammie Laskowski of Logan, Ohio have been bringing their girls to Skyview for a few years now. Tammie says it is a fun activity that she enjoys being able to take her kids to. Jason has been coming to Skyview since he was a kid and loves the nostalgic feeling of it all, saying how he wants to share that with his children.

David and Kendra Haynes are also regulars at the theatre. Kendra started coming while she was still in high school and began bringing her kids three years ago. David has been a customer for the last 10 years and is visiting for the third time this summer. They both point out how the best part of coming to Skyview is the safe, clean environment, and David adds that there is not a better deal due to the low cost of admission and the cheap menu prices. Perhaps the biggest fan, though, is its owner.

MEET THE OWNER

Owner Walt Effinger laughs with concession manager Amy Cenci during a lull between movies. Photo by Erin Clark.

All Effinger has ever wanted to do with his life is own a drive-in. The son of a projectionist, Walt began learning the craft when he was in junior high school, officially being hired on at Skyview while in high school. Crum’s assistant taught him the ways of splicing movies and operations management. Effinger eventually became the manager of the concessions stand. He became the owner of Skyview when Crum, due to his failing health, decided to sell.

“He [Crum] wanted to sell it to someone who would keep it going,” Effinger says. “So I said ‘That would be me.’”

Effinger has turned his dream of owning a drive-in into reality. His success stems from his desire to respect the history of the theatre while growing the business. Standard practices include showing quality movies in a safe environment.

“We show first-run movies, two features, and we try to show something for everybody’s appeal and keep it very family friendly, safe, enjoyable,” Effinger says. “We want everyone to come out and have a good time.”

GOING DIGITAL

Effinger tries to keep everything about his drive-in as similar to its original opening day as possible. The biggest change was the choice to go digital six years ago. Costing about $120,000, the overhaul was financed completely by Effinger despite the common industry practice of partnering with a distributor in what’s called a Virtual Print Fee (VPF).

In a VPF, distributor covers about 80 percent of the digital convergence. In return, the theatre runs the distributor’s movies. Shipping costs for digital movies are dramatically less than for movie reels, thus more movies can be shown, reimbursing the distributor in the long run.

Effinger felt more secure working on his own.

Going digital has dramatically changed the way Effinger operates his theatre. Preparation ahead of the show when Skyview was still operating with film took about three hours because the movies had to be spliced together to run smoothly. Now, it takes about 40 minutes a week.

“My hard part of the evening [pressing the ‘play’ button], right there,” Effinger says while standing at the controls of the projector.

Movies arrive from his booking agency, Tri-State Theatre Service, on hard drives and are downloaded to the projector. Effinger just has to press start on his pre-programmed sequence, and the projector does the rest of the work. First the music plays, followed by a short PA announcement that the movie is about to begin and the national anthem. Then the movies play in order. It even turns itself off.

Digital viewing is shifting the movie industry but thanks to passionate owners like Effinger, nostalgic stops like Skyview are not going anywhere.

WHEN TO VISIT

The theatre operates between April and September. In peak season during the summer, patrons can watch films seven days a week. Once school is in session the theatre is only open Friday and Saturday. Toward the end of October, Skyview briefly reopens for Halloween movies. List of movies can be seen on Skyview’s website along with its Facebook page.