When you arrive at the Pleasant Valley Drive-In, set in a grassy field within a hamlet that really is called Pleasant Valley, you will feel you have stepped back into another century.
This makes perfect sense, as this place, one of only three surviving drive-in movie theaters in Connecticut, opened in 1947.
Has it changed much? When I pose this question to Melissa Colman on a mellow Thursday night in mid-June as she and her husband and their 8-month-old son settle in for a double feature, she tells me: “I was probably 7 when I was last here. It literally looks the same.”
Pleasant Valley Drive-In
47 River Road, Pleasant Valley (Barkhamsted)
Open Thursday night-Sunday night during summer
Gates open at 6:30 p.m. Showtime is about 30 minutes after sunset.
The concession stand prices are also from another time: $3.25 for a hot dog, $3.50 for a small popcorn, etc. Admission (cash only) is $10 for ages 13 and up, $5 for ages 6-12, free for ages 5 and under. Thursday is “carload night”: $20 for a whole crew.
Before the movies begin (Cars 3, followed by Captain Underpants), we are serenaded by a medley of 1950s hits — “At the Hop,” “Charlie Brown,” “Blue Moon” — played from a boombox atop Richard Crump’s pick-up truck.
I ask Crump what he does at the drive-in, and he says: “Just about everything. I clean the lot, I cook if I’m needed, I park cars, I paint, I trim the trees.” (Indeed, trees surround the property.)
When I note there is no marquee out front, Crump replies, “The movies are not advertised [that way]. I put out the posters early in the week at the front window of the ticket booth.”
Inside that small booth, the nerve center of the drive-in, sits Donna McGrane, who co-owns the theater with her husband, Tim McGrane. The McGranes bought the theater in 1996 and have successfully preserved its old-time ambiance. In doing so, they are also preserving their own youthful days.
“I grew up right down the street,” she says, pointing over her shoulder. “My mom worked in the kitchen here; my dad ran the projector on weekends. So I grew up here.” (While her parents worked, she saw hundreds of movies.)
McGrane notes she and her husband (“my maintenance man”), who spends much of his time at his restaurant in nearby Winsted, are the fifth owners of this drive-in.
Inevitably, there have been a few changes, even at Pleasant Valley. “About six years ago during the winter, the screen came down,” she recalls. “A really bad high wind did it. That cost a pretty penny to replace, six or seven grand.”
The second change was forced upon the McGranes by the movie industry. A few years ago, studios required theater operators to “go digital” on their projection equipment. The cost for that was $80,000. “The community got together and raised $21,000 for us,” McGrane says. “I can’t even talk about it. It makes me cry.”
The one upside of the digital changeover: McGrane no longer has to pay for a projectionist. But it’s still run out of the original tiny structure that adjoins the equally ancient bathrooms. “Every building here is original except for the ticket booth,” she says.
Occasionally McGrane pauses in our conversation to welcome a car pulling up to the window of her booth. “Tune in to 87.9 on your radio,” she tells every customer. “And you just need to park by a yellow pole.” (Yes, that’s another change: no more portable speakers to hang out your car window.)
McGrane is keeping her eyes on the cloudy sky and worrying about it. But she rarely closes. Only a severe thunderstorm and heavy sustained rain can shut down Pleasant Valley.
I ask about that name and she tells me, “Oh, this IS the town of Pleasant Valley. It’s a hamlet of Barkhamsted.”
I remark to McGrane that drive-in theaters seem to be surviving only in rural areas; besides Pleasant Valley, Connecticut has just the Mansfield Drive-in and the Southington Drive-in, which is now owned by that town and run by volunteer community groups. “People like coming here because it’s so old-fashioned," she says. "They like to sit out on the grass. A lot of grandparents bring their grandkids. They want them to go to a drive-in theater while there still is one.”
When I come upon the Roy family of Winsted, mom Shaliene and dad Steve are setting up lawn chairs while their four kids, ages 8-14, nestle in the large back seat of their station wagon. “Whatever we need, we have it!” Steve says. “Pillows, food, sleeping bags, bug spray. You can even bring your dog if you want.”
Citing the prices at Pleasant Valley, he adds: “You can’t beat it. It’s over 10 bucks each to go to a regular theater. Here tonight (‘carload night’), six of us are seeing two movies for just 20 bucks.”
“This is an experience a lot of people don’t get to have,” Shaliene points out. “To me, it’s your picturesque classic drive-in.”
Their son, Noah, pipes up: “They show good movies and we have our own personal space. It’s very comfy. You can’t lay down at a movie theater.”
But how long can Pleasant Valley continue? “I’ll keep doing this as long as I’m physically able and as long as people are still coming and bringing their kids,” McGrane says. “And my elder daughter has shown an interest in taking it over one day.”
McGrane adds: “Last summer we had the busiest season in our 21 years! We had 15 or 16 sold-out nights (250 cars is the limit). It was just crazy!”