Wednesday, September 23, 2020

No new movies; classics click at Glen Drive-In

By Cathy DeDe, Chronicle Managing Editor

Brett Gardner operates the Glen Drive-In started by his grandfather in 1958. Chronicle photo/Cathy DeDe

The good news for the Glen Twin Drive-In in Queensbury is that drive-in movies are one of the few pandemic-allowed, crowd-drawing entertainments.

The bad news is that Hollywood studios aren’t releasing any first-run hits that are the lifeblood of movie theaters.

“I was a little apprehensive with the older movies,” Brett Gardner, 39, the third-generation owner of the Glen Drive-In, told The Chronicle.

But his fare of popular classics — Back to the Future, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Empire Strikes Back, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Grease and American Graffiti on a double header — is working.

“Attendance has been pretty good,” Mr. Gardner says. “It looks like we’re going to be able to pay the bills and taxes and everything, and employees.” He has 10.

“We did get a Payroll Protection loan, and that helped out a little. If I didn’t have that, I would have been more apprehensive about opening.”

Their twin screens normally can accommodate 900 cars.

“Peak normal is 700 people,” said Mr. Gardner. “We’re not seeing that, maybe at 60 to 70 percent. That’s still good for these old movies.”

There’s an upside to not booking new blockbusters. He must book first-run movies for two weeks and show them every day, no matter the audience turnout.

If a movie turns out to be less of a draw than expected, “I’m stuck with it,” says Mr. Gardner. And being locked-in might prevent him from pivoting to a title that proves more popular.

Operating Wednesday to Sunday

Contracts to book older movies are “a lot more lax,” he says. He can do a one-week booking that allows him to show it as few as three or four nights, depending on demand.

He said he’s learned the demand is for weekends, up to Wednesdays and Thursdays. He’s not running movies on Mondays and Tuesdays. “So, I might do a couple of concerts. I’m not saying I’m going to, or that I’m not.”

Mr. Gardner said he opened about three weeks after the state go-ahead because they were putting finishing touches on some minor upgrades to the facility. “I do all the work myself,” he noted.

Empire Strikes Back on big screen

They opened with Jaws, and “it did very well.” Mr. Gardner recalls his father’s stories of Jaws in its initial run playing six weeks at full capacity — both at the drive-in and at the Cinema 5 indoor theater that the family also owned.

Glen Drive-In owner Brett Gardner. The speakers don’t provide the sound anymore; that’s broadcast via FM, but the posts let people know where to park for social distancing. Where two vehicles used to be, only one is allowed now. Chronicle photo/Cathy DeDe

“These old movies are really cooler than I thought it would be, even as the owner,” Mr. Gardner says.

“There’s nothing like seeing Empire Strikes Back on the big screen. It makes you really stop and watch. You can get up to go to the rest room, and talk to people if you want. It really is the best thing, the drive-in.”

The classic clip-on-window speakers have given way to high-quality FM, broadcast through the car radio. The speaker stands remain and now are benchmarks for car spacing.

Mr. Gardner said he’d typically have two cars between stands — now he limits it to one in each 12-foot space, unless it’s two cars from the same family.

People may stay in their vehicles or in socially distanced lawn chairs within their designated space. “That’s automatically 50 percent capacity right there.”

Started by grandfather in 1958

Mr. Gardner said his grandfather John Gardner, Sr., opened the theater in 1958, “and my father (also John) ran it his whole life.” His grandparents and parents have passed away.

“I grew up here,” Mr. Gardner says. “The bus used to drop me off here after school, rather than at my house….I personally love the theater, just like my parents did.

“It’s a lot of work. You have to be there all the time. Being in this tourist area of Lake George, it’s worth my while.

“As I get older I don’t mind putting in the extra hours. Some days it’s four or five, some days it’s 16.”

He said he’s made the move to hire an assistant manager. “You have to educate your employees to know the place, so you can walk away sometimes.

“I don’t like to say ‘married to your business.’ But it’s hard to let go. You’ve got to trust somebody with your baby. It’s like you’re addicted to making sure everything is going as smooth as it can be.”

Hosted SGF graduation; concerts?

Mr. Gardner said he’s been approached by promoters with “some opportunities” to put on concerts or other live shows. He’s been slow to commit.

“First, I want to see how the movies do, to establish the control. I need to make this much money to make it work. With a concert or different show, you need to pay for advertising, the promoter, the band needs to make money. It might not be in my best interest. That’s the quandary.”

He did host the South Glens Falls graduation. “They had a great time.” He says he was also approached by Queensbury High School, but that they went in a different direction. He hosted the Hadley-Luzerne school sports banquet as well.

The shift from new movies to classics has some side benefits, like getting out from under a hit that doesn’t have “legs.”

“Even on a good summer,” he says, “one great movie can get 1,000 cars and the next week is different and only 50 show up.”

And booking the classics for shorter runs means, “If you want to see it, you better get there, because it probably won’t stay,” Mr. Gardner warns.

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