Parma Motor-Vu survives for 60 years

IDAHO PRESS-TRIBUNE (NAMPA)July 16, 2013 

Parma Drive-In Anniversary

Destiny Curtiss watches a movie from atop a vehicle at the Parma Motor-Vu.

AARIC BRYAN — Idaho Press-Tribune

  • DIGITAL COULD DOOM MANY DRIVE-INS

    BY CHRISTINA LORDS

    POST REGISTER (IDAHO FALLS)

    The co-founder of drive-ins.com says many U.S. drive-ins will close this year rather than invest in digital projection. "Owners do not want to ... make another huge investment that will take 15 to 20 years to pay off," Kipp Sherer says.

    Manager Dawnelle Mangum says the 60-year-old Spud Drive-In in Driggs closed for awhile when owner Lenny Zaban didn't think he could afford to invest in the new technology. It reopened after a community outcry. A Save the Spud campaign began, and more than half of the $30,000 needed to buy a projector was collected before the Spud opened this season.

    Almost 5,000 drive-ins were operating across the United States at their peak around 1958, Sherer says. Fewer than 450 remain. Idaho has 10, the most drive-ins per capita of any state, according to the Post Register's research. Drive-ins still operate in Caldwell, Driggs, Grangeville, Idaho Falls, Parma, Rexburg, Soda Springs and Twin Falls.

    Christina Lords: (208) 542-6762 or clords@postregister.com

PARMA - In the early 1950s, new television sets had Treasure Valley residents staying home more and going to the movies less. That didn't bode well for local theater owners.

Bill Dobbs of Parma decided to open a drive-in theater in the town to get people out of their homes and at the movies again, says his daughter, Karen Cornwell.

Dobbs, who also owned an indoor theater in downtown Parma, sold his home so he could make a down payment on a loan for the theater. But the Parma Motor-Vu didn't open to huge crowds its first year.

"It really wasn't that great, because there was a drive-in in almost every little town in the Valley," Cornwell says. "It was a situation where you were expected to draw just within your own community, and it wasn't enough. They struggled."

But Parma Motor-Vu gained momentum and held on through the years. It's one of just 10 drive-in theaters left in Idaho, down from a high of 40, according to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association. It will celebrate 60 years Saturday, July 20.

"I'm really proud of it and proud that we maintain it," Cornwell says. "It's kind of mind-boggling to think that we've survived for 60 years."

The first movies shown at the Motor-Vu were "Trouble Along the Way," starring John Wayne, and "The Gunfighter," starring Gregory Peck. Adults could watch a movie for 60 cents, children ages 10 and 11 were 20 cents and children under 10 were free.

What saved the theater in the early years was a decision to show Spanish-language films, Cornwell says. For a while, the drive-in showed those films Wednesdays and Sundays and English-language films Thursdays through Saturdays.

Cornwell and her husband took over the theater from her parents in 1976. She says it wasn't her intent to carry on the family business, but it has become something she loves.

The theater dropped the Spanish films in the 1980s when business slowed. Cornwell says they realized the drive-in theater was showing films that were older than what was on television.

"There you have it - TV was the culprit again," she says.

The family closed the downtown theater around the same time.

The drive-in started showing newer titles after dropping the Spanish ones.

On a recent weekend, adults paid $8 and children under 12 got in free to see "Star Trek Into Darkness" and "Fast and Furious 6."

Although the movies and their stars may have changed, many things at the Parma Motor-Vu have remained the same. Popcorn is still popped in the original machine. Movies are shown on the original screen.

In April, Cornwell converted the theater to digital video, a necessity to stay in business because films will all go digital after this year, she says.

As the number of drive-in theaters dwindles, they have become nostalgic places for families to spend an evening. Cornwell says people like to bring their grandchildren to watch movies outdoors the way they did when they were younger.

But it's not just an older generation that can appreciate the experience.

Animated features draw the biggest crowds to the theater, Cornwell says. "Cars" was the most successful movie to ever play at the Parma Motor-Vu. The drive-in had to turn cars away that lined up a quarter-mile down the road. The film also played for five weeks, instead of the two-week runs movies normally have at the theater.

Cornwell's children help with the theater now, and some of her grandchildren are on the payroll. She says the theater is doing much better now than it did in the early days and draws people from all over.

"The whole Valley comes here," she says. "It's not a Parma drive-in theater, it's a Valley drive-in theater."

The theater will mark its anniversary with a barbecue for current and past employees, including the original projectionist and the original "popcorn girl," Cornwell says.

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