he Disney touch is working its magic in an unusual location far from the company’s California and Florida theme parks. Two men with Walt Disney Co. training and a love of retro culture are helping revive a 60-plus-year-old drive-in movie theater on the fringes of the old industrial city of Hamilton, Ohio.
That’s where Todd Chancey, who worked at Disney’s California Adventure amusement park, and Mark Althoetmar, who focuses on Disneyland’s hotels/hospitality, decided to pursue their passion for old drive-ins.
In 2007, they bought the Holiday Auto Theatre in Hamilton from its existing owners. It was still in business, one of the few remaining drive-ins in this region, but operated in an eccentric fashion — the owners were collecting old buses and had them parked on the property.
Chancey and Althoetmar were both members of American Coaster Enthusiasts, which works to preserve wooden roller coasters, and had come to Ohio to visit King’s Island and Cedar Point.
“That’s where our love of Americana came into play,” Althoetmar says. “We started tying in drive-ins with our roller-coaster trips. We would ride coasters by day and take in drive-ins at night.”
They liked drive-ins so much that when the Holiday went on the market, they purchased it for more than $500,000 — despite its distance from their respective home bases. (It’s on the winding State Route 130, known as Old Oxford Road.)
Chancey quit his Disney job and moved close to the theater; Althoetmar visits about once a month. Summer is their biggest season — on some weekend nights the grounds can fill to the 600-car capacity.
All the collected buses are gone but one — it took commuters over San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge and now supports a large board used by a muralist to promote new movies such as Iron Man 3 and the upcoming Monsters University.
And they have been updating the facilities while preserving and celebrating the heritage: Chancey diligently changes every tiny light bulb in the vintage arrow-shaped “Entrance” sign, and Althoetmar is arranging to have neon added to the curvy, Modernist lettering of the new “HOLIDAY” sign.
They have old trailers for concession items, but accept credit card payment for snacks and tickets. Although the sound system is now low-frequency FM, the poles of the old in-car speakers are still in place and they might reinstall a few rows of speakers for nostalgia’s sake.
This most recent Memorial Day weekend was actually a historic time here. After the triple-feature screening (for $8.50 per adult and $5 children ages 4-11) of Fast & Furious 6, Star Trek Into Darkness and Oblivion, the theater converted from 35-millimeter film projection to digital. Film distributors will soon stop supplying old-fashioned film reels to theaters completely, and those that can’t afford the conversion to digital could have to close.
But there is an upside.
“That will really open up what we can do,” Chancey says. “We like to show old movies from time to time, especially around Halloween. But the 35-millimeter prints had deteriorated. Now that we have a digital player, we can just pay the fee and put a Blu-ray into it.”
First-run movies, especially family movies, are the major draw, though. People arrive several hours early to eat their snacks (which you can bring in for a $5 food permit fee) or order some from the ample selection in the concession building, which is open early to serve them. They set up lawn chairs next to their cars or park their pick-ups facing away from the screen, so they can put mattresses and seats in the flatbed. Some bring pets; many have children.
The owners welcome them, but there are guest guidelines printed out and available on the website. They cover parking, safety and movie courtesy. There is no alcohol, cooking out, loud talking or obscene language; patrons should only use parking lights to arrive or exit if a movie is running.
Here, their Disney training is valuable.
“People will tell you they come here because they love that they can control their environment,” Chancey says. “They’re not stuck next to people like in a theater. They can sit in their car or outside their car. But safety and security of our guests are our primary concerns and our team members are trained on how to take care of folks.”
Upcoming screenings at the Holiday include Man of Steel, Despicable Me 2 and The Lone Ranger. For more information, visit holidayautotheatre.com.