It’s Showtime: The Ocala Drive-In Lives!
I hate to admit it but there are times these days when I wonder if nostalgia might be dead. Whenever I attend a revival screening with a mediocre turnout or hear of some convention promoter’s decision to go with a direct to video hack as a guest instead of a genre veteran, it really makes me start to wonder. Well I got a much needed booster shot this past weekend when a hometown institution, the Ocala Drive-In Theater, rose from the dead in all its neon blazing glory. Unlike the zombies that used to regularly star in the films shown there though, this resurrection not only didn’t scare people away, it packed the house!
The Ocala Drive-In Theater first lit up the roadside of Highway 301 just south of Ocala in 1948 when the outdoor theater fad was sweeping the nation. It operated continually until 1998 when the manager, who had been there for thirty years, retired. It changed hands twice in the next two years and then remained open until 2007 when the lease holders decided to call it quits. Thankfully, unlike many of its kind, the Ocala Drive-In wasn’t sold off for real estate development. It just sat quietly on the side of the highway as a testament to simpler times and waited for the right person to come along and revive it. That person, or persons, turned out to be John and Charlie Watzke, two brothers with celluloid in there blood who recognized a perfect opportunity when they saw one.
I managed to squeeze in a little time with John and Charlie on Friday, July 29, the official re-opening day of the theater. The night before I had attended an invitation only screening where about 125 cars full of people turned out to help with a dry run prior to going live with the general public. While the previous evening’s test had gone well with only minimal inconveniences, there was still a lot to be done and coordinated before the box office opened on Friday. When I arrived that afternoon, Charlie was busy combining the parts from three industrial popcorn machines into one working unit while John was fielding numerous phone calls from the media and the curious public and still had to find time to oversee the ongoing restorations. In between calls and testing wires, I managed to slow them down just long enough to get the inside scoop on what brought them to this theater and where they are planning to go with it.
ED Tucker: Tell me a little bit about your history in the theater industry. From what I understand it goes back quite a ways.
John Watzke: To our grandfather, he founded the Projectionists Union in New Orleans in 1918.
Charlie Watzke: He became a projectionist somewhere around the time he was thirteen or fourteen years old. He was born in 1901. In 1918, he and six other gentlemen formed the Local 293 in New Orleans. This was the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and Motion Picture Machine Operators for the US and Canada.
JW: Our dad joined in 1939, so we were raised in movie theaters.
ET: Did your grandfather and father own movie theaters?
JW: No, neither one of them ever owned a theater. My grandfather started the Projectionists Union and my dad was a projectionist and engineer for Gulf State Theaters. He worked the Do Drive-In in Metairie, Louisiana, a suburb of New Orleans. We were raised at the Do Drive-In. When were kids our mother would bring us up to the theater and put us in a play pen in the projection room so the mosquitoes wouldn’t eat us! As we got a little bit older, we learned how to do everything from working on the speakers in the field to selling tickets at the ticket office. Daddy eventually showed us how to run the projector. Being an engineer for Gulf State Theaters and with the theaters open seven nights a week, he would have to go in at night and gut a projection booth and he would take Charlie and me with him.
ET: “Gut” a projection booth?
JW: To gut a projection booth means to rebuild it. They would put in new equipment or repair what was there. You went in at night after the theater closed and you worked all night and through the next day until you got it done. Charlie joined the union and when my dad retired he started taking over the repairs on the equipment. I worked at several theaters as a projectionist. Charlie’s more familiar with the fundamentals of the job. Charlie has owned, I believe, six theaters and I had one in Covington, Louisiana.
ET: Are you leasing the Ocala Drive-In?
CW: No, we have a land contract with an option to buy. It means we have a certain amount of time to pay it off per the contract.
ET: So that gives you an opportunity to see if this is still a viable drive-in again and if it is worth buying?
CW: It’s going to be a viable drive-in.
ET: That’s the spirit! That’s what I like to hear!
JW: We would not have put the money and the labor into this theater that we have if we didn’t think it was viable.
ET: How many months has that been?
JW: We started on this last September.
ET: So almost a year.
JW: Yes, almost a year. I found the drive-in on August the sixteenth and by the time we finalized the paperwork and everything, we actually started working on it around the first week in September.
ET: So from the time you discovered this theater until the time you started restoring it was less than a month?
JW: It was two weeks! Not even two weeks really. We came here with the goal of this place being ours! Charlie and I came here and looked at the place and between the front gate and the flea market we made the decision that this was going to be ours! It was in bad shape though.
ET: Do you know how many years it had sat unused before you got it?
JW: It’s actually only been four years. It was closed in 2007. From what I understand though it was getting run down before it was closed. It had suffered a lot of years of deterioration before we found it. Then over the years of being closed you had not only deterioration but also vandalism. People busted out the windows and got in here and took anything they could find.
ET: That seems rather foolish, there wasn’t anything left in here that was worth stealing was there?
JW: No, there was some novelty stuff like pieces of film in the projection room and reels and stuff like that they took out.
ET: If I had known that stuff was still in here I would have broken in myself and beat them to it. I almost got the sign out front; you don’t know how close I came!
JW: (laughs) Well I’m glad you didn’t get it! The sign works now. It hasn’t been lit up since the mid 80’s. That’s the original plastic on there and it’s working!
ET: What else did you have to do to get the theater back in working order? You had to get a new projector didn’t you?
JW: No, that is not a new projector. It is the original projector from 1948. Charlie literally took that projector apart on the floor and gutted it down to just the outside case. He polished every gear and sprocket in it, repainted it and put it back together.
ET: So that is the original projector from when the theater opened?
JW: Yes, he completely rebuilt it. The lamp house is a mid-70’s model. They had carbon arc lamps originally. That projector purrs like a kitten now. We had to put in a new sound system because the one that was in here was, well, cheap! Then we had to completely redo the concession stand. We had to put in a new roof and new sheet rock on the walls. The entire inside has been redone. The equipment is all things that we had or had refurbished.
CW: When we first got here, the ceiling for the concession stand was on the floor! Insulation was dangling from the rafters; you could see daylight right through the ceiling.
ET: Did you have most of this equipment in storage? Was it things you have hung onto over the years?
JW: Most of these things, like the popcorn machines and the Coke machine were things we had warehoused. As I said, Charlie has owned several theaters so that came in handy. Of course he’s paid the price for this equipment because you figure for the cost of ten to twelve years of storage you could have just saved your money and bought new ones!
ET: Were there any interesting discoveries as you went through the place? Any secret caches of movie posters or films?
JW: No, all that kind of stuff was gone. If there was anything like that in here the people got it when they raided the place. All the things you see now like the pictures in the concession stand came from a theater Charlie used to have in Titusville. Most everything you see here we either already had or were able to refurbish.
ET: Let’s talk a little bit about the outside of the theater. How many cars is it supposed to be able to hold?
JW: By the poles it will hold about 350 cars. If we use the last two rows that don’t have poles it will hold a little over 400. This drive-in used to be able to hold 550 cars but then they built the flea market in the back.
ET: How many cars do you anticipate tonight for the official grand re-opening?
JW: 400 plus cars. It will fill tonight! I’ve had a lot of phone calls today asking what time the box office opens and what time the films start. We have 170 classic cars coming that will be doing a parade to the theater. The first three rows are roped off for them and if there are any more they will line up along the median. They said they didn’t care where they were parked as long as they were facing the screen and could see the movie! I figure we will sell out tonight and tomorrow night. I feel certain of that.
ET: That is fantastic. Admission is only $6.00 per person and that is for two first run movies. You would pay $8.00 to $10.00 dollars in the evenings at the typical movie theater and that is for only one movie.
JW: Around here it is $8.75 to $9.75 for adults and $6.75 to $7.75 for children. When they say children they are talking down to three years of age. We charge $6.00 for adults and children six to twelve are $3.00. Under the age of six is free.
ET: I understand there was a problem with you going back to the old car load pricing structure?
JW: We can’t do carload pricing right now. The film companies won’t let us. The drive-ins used to do car load prices but they never had first run movies. Originally movies would hit the walk in theaters first until they were played out. After that they were put in the vault for a few months. Then they were taken out of the vault and sent to the drive-in theaters. In today’s electronic world, by the time movies leave the walk in theaters now, they are out on DVD within a month. The only way for us to be competitive is to show first run movies. We can’t do the car load prices but we are offering people two first run movies for $6.00!
ET: Speaking of today’s electronic world, is there any way that a drive-in theater could be set up to show the 3D movies that are becoming the new trend?
JW: It could be but it would be a very expensive ordeal. It would have to be done with digital projectors so you would be looking at around $120K to $150K. It may be more than that. To do a small walk in theater with a 30 foot screen would be $80-$90K. You would use the same kind of projector for a drive-in but you would have to increase the lamp house. There is a 260 foot throw between the projection booth and the screen tower and that screen is 90 feet wide and 60 feet tall.
ET: That brings up a good point; I think the Ocala Drive-In Theater may have the largest outdoor screen in Florida.
JW: It is the largest one in Florida, I know that. I have heard that it is not the largest one in the nation. There is supposed to be one in Wisconsin that is 110 feet wide. If we are not the largest screen in that nation we are close to it.
ET: John, I know you and Charlie have had your hands full this past year just getting this place operational again but have you made any plans for where you would like to take it in the future?
JW: Well first of all it’s going to be a drive-in theater again and always. We have some things going on with classic car clubs, like the one that is coming in tonight, that want to come in once a month and we will show older movies for them.
CW: My future plans are to watch two more generations enjoy this place and to be here quite a long time! I like to do charity events, poker runs and that type of thing. We like to do any type of fund raisers to help people in need. The poker runs are very popular and raise a lot of money with live entertainment. We have plans to do a bike night once a month. We’ll probably show films for that like Easy Rider, Born Losers with Billy Jack and other films that cater to bikers. I would also like to get my hands on print of Woodstock. We can rope off the front area and let people put blankets on the ground and watch local talent perform while the movie plays behind them. We’re also already planning a dusk ‘till dawn horror movie marathon. We’ll just keep looking for novelty things that will bring the people in.
Following the interview on Friday, I returned to the drive-in, or at least attempted to, about ten minutes before the box office was supposed to open that night. As I approached the theater, I saw that traffic was backed up nearly a mile and half away in the south bound lane of 301! Because of this back up and people crossing traffic from the north bound side of the road, it took us over an hour before we finally made the turn onto the theater property. As we sat about four cars back from the ticket office, I saw John drive up, run to the booth, and then start counting the cars in line. As he walked past I asked him if it was filling up and was assured we would get in. No sooner had he reached the highway than I heard him informing the line of cars that still stretched out of eyesight that the theater was full and they would have to come back another night!
After buying our tickets, we pulled into the lot and I was stunned by all the people there. I lived in Ocala for twenty years and still return there often. In all that time I have patronized the Ocala Drive-In for as long as it was open but I had never seen anything close to this before. Cars were parked all the way back to the flea market stalls and news vans from two Orlando stations were broadcasting from the lot. It was already dark when we found one of the few remaining parking spots on the far end of the lot. Shortly after 9PM and long past the scheduled start time, to let everyone get situated and buy popcorn, I heard Charlie’s voice break the silence on our radio. He gave a brief run down of his family’s history with theaters, thanked us all graciously for making this such a spectacular re-opening event and then fired up the screen with the first feature.
Since it was already after 11PM when the first film ended, I decided to call it a night. Watching even one first run movie aside, I felt I had gotten my admission price worth just seeing the theater lot so alive with activity and so many people enjoying the experience with their friends and family. It was truly a sight to behold and I wish John and Charlie Watzke all the luck and success in the world. It’s nice to meet a couple of guys who may actually love the drive-in theater experience more than I do and I am anxiously awaiting their future events. I sincerely hope that the Ocala Drive-In Theater will still be going strong when I get ready to retire and maybe, just maybe, they can find a spot for me there selling popcorn or something!