By Michael Reschke
As soon as you walk up to the concession stand, you can hear him. It’s about 11:15 p.m. and the night’s first feature at the Starlite Drive-In has just ended, but Mark Freeman’s second act has just begun.
Some people in line laugh. Others aren’t sure what pickle pops are or why the man in the hat behind the counter feels the need to yell about them.
“Do you like pickles?” he says to the customer across from him. She does. “Pickle pop on me!” Freeman hollers down to his son Ryan at the cash register before ringing a cowbell. “The first bite’s intense. The second bite’s a little bit interesting, but the third bite, it’s love.”
New owner, old worries
Freeman bought the Starlite last March and has recruited his family and friends to keep the Monroe County landmark in operation for a 59th year. It’s not yet certain, however, whether it will be open for a 60th year.
Up to 90 percent of the ticket price can go to the movie company, so most of the drive-in’s profits have to come from concession sales. That’s why when he saw a group of people setting up tables for their own mini buffet the first weekend of the season, Freeman thought he had made a mistake.
Then there’s the inevitable transition from film to digital projection.
Hollywood is ending distribution of 35 mm film, and Freeman estimates upgrading to digital will cost about $75,000. At the end of July, he’ll have to look at the numbers and make a hard decision.
In the meantime, he’s doing everything he can to keep the drive-in profitable and a smile on his face.
“Get ’er done, but have fun,” he told The Herald-Times.
At about 5:30 p.m. the sun was still high above the trees. The only vehicles at the drive-in belonged to a couple of friends setting up the concession stand and Freeman’s son Logan, who was picking up trash.
“We give every car a trash bag when they come in,” Logan said. “The first couple weekends we didn’t. It was awful.”
The past three months have been full of learning experiences like that for the Freemans.
“When I got into the drive-in business, I didn’t know I was getting into the restaurant business,” Mark Freeman said.
Logan said he doesn’t want to ban outside food; he remembers bringing food in when they came to the drive-in years ago. They just want to educate the public about what it will take to keep the drive-in going. Their customers let them know what it would take to get them to do that.
“If you want the Starlite to stay open, you gotta buy concessions,” Mark Freeman said. “They said, ‘You’ve gotta have stuff we want.’”
As he explained this, Tommy Smith, the kitchen manager at Macri’s at The Depot, arrived. He brought metal containers with his marinated Smith kabobs and a cooler full of corn on the cob to the grill behind the concession stand. A little while later, a black Ford Taurus pulled in.
“Looks like Swing-In Pizza is here,” Freeman said.
The previous weekend, 44 pizzas were delivered to cars. On this particular night, he’s got 20 coming in.
“It’s really a crap shoot on how many pizzas to order,” Freeman said. “The easy way is to back up the Tombstone truck and pull out frozen pizzas. But that’s not how we want to do it.”
As the sun moved closer to the tree line, the smell of buttered popcorn wafted through the air. The first couple cars crunched the gravel beneath their tires as they slowly rolled up to the towering white screen.
“Here we go,” Freeman said. “It’s officially started.”
Logan and a friend manned the newly-remodeled ticket booth. When Mark came over, windows rolled down and hands poked out to wave.
“What’s up, girlfriend?” he said to the occupant of one car. “I remember when you were just 7 years old.”
It wasn’t long before he started ribbing people.
“We charge double for debit cards,” he said with a smile.
After riling up the customers in line, Mark hopped on his John Deere Gator and took a tour around the lot. He drove to the green space between the front row of cars and the screen, where kids were playing catch. He stopped by a group of young kids on a blanket and armed with butterfly nets. A man from a few rows back was flying a remote controlled helicopter. Mark told the kids it was a snipe and asked if they could catch it with their nets.
“If everybody’ll get an ear of corn, the snipe’ll come right at ya,” he said.
He drove over to the man with the remote and asked him to fly the copter by the kids again.
As the sunlight began to fade, Kati Oard was hard at work in the projection room. The film that Mark picked up from Martinsville comes in several reels, with about 20 minutes of the movie on each. Oard spliced them together using a precision taping method.
Most of the time, she goes about her work unnoticed. Most of the time.
“I become quite on display if something does break down,” she said. “Which, it doesn’t matter how good of a projectionist you are, it’s going to happen eventually.”
She’s been running the projector at Starlite for about three years, but the drive-in has been a part of her family for much longer. She said her dad used to go there, and she went as a teenager.
“I hope it’s still around for my son to go here,” she said. “Hopefully, with the Freemans being a local family and having the spirit they do, it will be.”