Movie Night

A timeless summer classic: The Mansfield Drive-in Theatre.

 

As the shadows of the day get longer, so do the lines of cars waiting to get into the Mansfield Drive-In Theatre. Families, couples on first dates, enthusiastic groups of friends and dozens of regulars—some from as far away as Springfield—stream through the entrance gates and navigate their way through the sea of speaker poles to pick a spot and park in front of one of the three 55-by-110-foot screens. Some spread blankets and set up lawn chairs in their ideal location; others sit on hoods or drop the tailgate. And, of course, there are always those who simply prefer the coziness of their own front—or back—seat.

“It’s really more of a social event than an indoor movie,” says owner Michael Jungden, who has run the 40-acre drive-in for over 35 years. “Everyone has their own space, and it’s great for people with little kids. You don’t have to worry about keeping them silent.”

Keeping them amused shouldn’t be too much trouble, either, as the drive-in has a small playground. Also a help are the double features offered every night during the summer (then weekends only in the fall before shutting down for winter). Plus, through maintaining his contacts over the years, Jungden has managed to ensure that he’s regularly showing new releases, including lots of family-friendly films.

The films may be new, but everything else about the place evokes the heyday of the drive-in movie when the original site was built (1954). Doo-wop music wafts from the speakers as patrons slowly roll into the lot, and the black-and-white tiled floor of the snack bar looks as though it’s straight from the local malt shop. Like most movie houses, the Mansfield Drive-In makes its money not on admissions—those dollars go to the motion-picture industry—but on concessions. The fare here is also pretty timeless: hot dogs and fries, Goobers and Raisinets, fountain soda, and bags and bags of freshly popped popcorn.

Speaking of traditions that seem to never get old, general manager Dave Cote—the drive-in’s only full-time employee (the other 30 or so are part-timers)—says that there are still people who occasionally try to sneak in. “Yeah, when someone pulls up by themself and buys one ticket, that’s usually a good sign,” he laughs. “Or when the trunk is riding low, or worse, when there’s a giggling blanket piled high in the backseat.” Cote and many of the other ushers have been doing this for years; they can spot concealed passengers better than the border patrol. “I like to play casual when I bust someone,” one usher tells me. “They’re looking for their ticket stub, which of course they don’t have, and I just smile. ‘No, no. Take your time, look everywhere. I have all night.’ It’s great.” Ultimately, the violators are sent back to the ticket booth to pay their admission.

Sneaking in seems especially silly when the drive-in is such a bargain: $9 for adults and $5 for kids, with two movies every night. Remember trying to cram as many of your friends as you could into a Volkswagen? You might want to get the gang together for Wednesday nights, when it’s only $18 per carload.

Showtimes vary with the setting of the sun, but the projectors in the space above the snack bar never start rolling before 8 p.m. The three projectors here—which have been cranking steadily since 1972—are made for traditional 35 mm movie film. Each projector has a stack of giant spools next to it, with one spool holding two features separated by blank frames that run during intermission. The film comes off one spool, goes through the projector and then back through the spools so there’s no rewinding. “The movie companies want us to convert to digital because it’s cheaper for them, but the problem is that there’s not a digital projector bright enough to work outside,” says Jungden. “Besides, it’d cost me about $100,000 per screen to convert.”

Jungden, who started out as general manager during the 1970s, has slowly improved the facility over the years, expanding to three screens in the 1980s and finally taking ownership of the property in 1991. More recently, he bought 15 acres from the adjacent chicken farm and converted one of the buildings into an indoor flea market that runs every Sunday 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., year-round, rain or shine. Despite the tailgatelike vibe, there are no open flames or grills allowed, and no pets, either. The location also prohibits adding lines to accommodate debit or credit cards, so it’s a cash-only operation, another throwback.

Although there’s enough space to accommodate 900 cars, Jungden says he “gets nervous” when they start reaching 800 vehicles. “When the weather is perfect and the movies are good, we have to send people home.”

Well, even though I’ve seen everything here, I’m not ready to go home yet. I get some fries and chicken fingers and go to my car, which is parked behind the snack bar. From this spot, I can view all three features simultaneously, so I look from screen to screen to screen while munching my ketchup-soaked treats. Hey, it’s Saturday night at the movies—who cares what picture you see?

For more information, call (860) 423-4441 or visit mansfielddrivein.com.

Movie Night

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