Romance by carbon-arc lights at the Drive In
Memories of flickering red lights, summer moths drawn to intense light and the smell of popcorn wafting over parking mounds just after dusk is the good stuff of life.
Buena Vista’s outskirts hold one of the last vestiges of Americana, the Drive-In movie. John and Barbara Groy run one of Colorado’s remaining 14 Drive-ins, along with the theater in town and the local laundromat.
Packing into the trunk, waiting in line for what seems like hours before settling in a slightly uphill position, waiting for the mobile-usher to make a final check of your car. The humps, situated evenly across the venue, are there for a reason. Perched smartly on an uphill incline to maximize the view from the front seat, the movie flickers to life, inspiring waves of memories.
The tinny speakers have been replaced by a radio re-broadcaster, lessening the nostalgia, but increasing the sound quality of the movie dramatically. The Comanche Drive-In lost the last 40 window-mounted speakers to lightning last summer. Simply dial the radio to the prescribed station and the magic begins.
But the real magic begins after the house lights fade into the night.
The Comanche Drive-In is a classic. The snack bar has the red light keeping things warm behind the counter. A rosy glow is cast on the vintage cash register, keeping track since the theater’s August, 1966, debut.
John Groy’s parents, John and Pearl, started the Drive-In on the outskirts of Buena Vista in 1966. The Groy’s theater legacy extends into town as well. The Pearl Theater, in downtown Buena Vista, was named after John’s mother. The elder Groy still operates a 500-seat theater in Salida named The Unique. And unique it is. There aren’t many 500-seat theaters in Colorado anymore, according to Groy. Fewer still are Drive-In theaters.
The current proprietor of the Comanche Drive-In began working at the summertime hotspot when he was a junior in high school. Ironically, this has been the Groy-boys summer gig for many years.
Part of the draw to the Drive-In is the hum from the lamphouse. Electric current flows into a DC generator, which produces such intense heat that baffles are needed to keep the system cool, and emerges as three-phase energy. The three-phase energy is needed to fuel the carbon-arc elements used to illuminate the images that bring the Drive-In to life.
A pair of projectors haunt the lamphouse like sentries of a bygone era. Sturdy equipment, worn from nearly 40 summers of nightly use, stand in contrast to the fresh-faced Michael (the final Groy-boy) who proudly upholds the title of “projectionist.”
“I’ve done this job since I was eight,” said Michael through a toothy grin. “My brothers taught me how to run the projectors and everything.”
A freshman at Colorado State University, Michael hustles back and forth between 18 – 20 minute reels. The projectors require constant maintenance and attention. Between making sure the “arc” is in the correct position and watching for the black dot on the upper right hand side of the movie, which signals the end of each reel.
Once each reel is finished, it must be rewound and replaced in the correct file, ready for the next night’s show.
The DC current runs into the projectors and through metal rods, which are similar to arc-welding rods. A white “flame” is produced as the rods nearly touch. And like an arc-welder, the rods diminish as the flame burns. Large red knobs make minute adjustments in the length of the rods, keeping the white-hot flame at the correct level and angle.
A sign of the times is revealed when John mentions that a 5,000-watt Xenon bulb may replace the rods next year.
But the Drive-In will no doubt continue, as nostalgia never goes out of style. So try the Drive-In theater again, it brings back memories of a bygone era and still stands the test of time for romantics of all ages.
The Comanche Drive-In Theater, located on West Highway 306 in Buena Vista, shows first-run movies throughout the summer. Call (719) 395-2766 for movie listings and times.