Residents in Shelby and the surrounding counties who enjoy visiting the Skyline Drive-in Movie Theater don't have to worry about whether the longtime local entertainment venue will show outdoor movies again this spring. In fact, new owners Joe Gaudin and Bill Dever are planning changes and investments that promise to revitalize the outdoor cinema, which opens at dusk on May 8.
The Skyline is the only drive-in theater in Shelby County, and a trip to Indianapolis or Columbus is required to find another drive-in within a reasonable driving distance. After its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, the drive-in theater went out of fashion for several decades, but today's money-conscious consumers are once again lured to the open air cinema for its nostalgia as well as its reasonable admission prices. Movies at the Skyline cost $6.50 for adults and $3.50 for children age 11 and under.
Gaudin runs Smashed Productions in Shelbyville and recently moved to a larger location at 55 E. Broadway St. The multi-track recording studio offers CD and DVD duplicating and printing, and Gaudin has booked numerous bands into the Strand to provide exposure for up-and-coming groups. Dever is a film distributor based in Franklin, and both men describe themselves as film fans. They have formed a nonprofit organization called Motion Picture Heritage, and its goal is to "focus on the drive-in's restoration and the celebration of motion picture history."
To pull in additional fans and expand the use of the large eight-acre property, Gaudin also is planning to build a large stage in front of the drive-in theater screen so that he can stage outdoor concerts to showcase local and regional bands and vocal talent. He wants to include all types of music, including gospel, country and bluegrass as well as traditional rock 'n' roll. He would even like to see a chamber orchestra perform on the stage. Gaudin also is considering car shows and multiple other uses for the property.
"We could present open-air theater," Gaudin said. "I want to promote the arts in Shelby County, and I want to bring back and save this drive-in."
Dever said that a retro 1950s feel is the goal for the atmosphere at the Skyline, and he is modeling it after the Cherry Bowl Drive-in in northern Michigan. The Skyline won't show movies with a rating of R, and the family-friendly drive-in will make sure that none of the movies that it shows are offensive to families.
Gaudin's first step in making changes at the drive-in is a complete remodel of the concession stand; he plans to decorate it in bright colors with workers dressed in white shirts and black bow ties. He wants to continue cooking the popcorn in coconut oil to retain the distinctive flavor that visitors to the drive-in expect, but he is also upgrading the kitchen so that customers can enjoy freshly prepared sandwiches, french fries, fountain drinks and ice cream.
"The Skyline will be a family destination," Dever said. "Families will get a good bang for their entertainment buck."
Although the Skyline will still broadcast the movie sound through the patron's car radios or boom-boxes on 89.5 on the FM dial, Gaudin and Dever are considering replacing the speakers on the 400 poles that remain just for the nostalgic feel and look that they would provide. The steel screen is in good shape, and one of the big attractions of the theater is its lush grass parking lot. Although it was gravel at one time, when the Shelby Drive-in closed in the 1960s, grass took over during the 10 years that it was closed. Since patrons preferred the grass over the gravel, it was retained after the drive-in reopened and holds up well because of the gravel underlay. In addition, a playground is probably in the Skyline's future.
"This will be a safe place to bring the kids," Dever said. "We won't insult anyone by what we show here."
Elmer and Jean DeWitt bought the drive-in, formerly called The Shelby Drive-in, from Don Siebert in 1971. The original Skyline Theater stood where Big Lots and McDonald's are located today, between East State Road 44 and East Michigan Road, but Siebert wanted that land for a car lot. The DeWitts purchased the business and equipment from the Skyline and moved it to the 3986 E. Michigan Road location and renamed the Shelby as the Skyline. The entrepreneurial couple also bought the Cinema Theater at 115 S. Harrison St., where the Strand is currently located.
The DeWitts owned and managed theaters around Indiana and Ohio for more than 40 years, and their children, Jim and Patty DeWitt, Jim's wife, Connie. and Dick Delaney, along with two grandchildren, Jeff and Tim DeWitt, all worked at the various theaters. The family also ran, and continues to run, Stage Door Graphics, located next to the Cinema at 207 S. Harrison St., and after a long day filled with print jobs, the family would begin its second job of running the movie theater and the drive-in. With the death of Elmer DeWitt in 1994, the family continued its arduous schedule.
"We didn't really think about it," Patty said. "It is just what we did. You get tired, but you get into a routine."
The downsizing for the DeWitt family accelerated in 2004 with the sale of the Cinema to the Strand of Shelbyville, a nonprofit arts agency which converted the theater into a community performing arts center. Since the drive-in was open only on weekends during the spring through the fall for the last two years, the schedule was a breeze when compared to earlier years - even though the workshift at the drive-in often didn't end until the wee hours of the morning. The death of Jean DeWitt in 2007 caused the remaining family members to think more seriously about retiring from the drive-in business.
"We're old," Jim DeWitt said with a laugh when asked why the decision was made to sell the drive-in.
Another reason was the fact that Jim and Connie DeWitt's sons were not interested in continuing the tradition of running the drive-in, although they both still work part time at the print shop. Jeff DeWitt has accepted a full-time job as a Shelby County deputy sheriff, and Tim DeWitt is working full time in security at Indiana Downs racetrack.
Dick Delaney, 75, freely admits that he knows he will miss the drive-in after 50 years working in various theaters, but Patty DeWitt said that she is thrilled to have a little more time to sleep and enjoy family activities. Jim, 56, feels pleased that Gaudin and Dever are the ones who bought the family drive-in.
"We wanted it to stay open as a drive-in," Jim DeWitt said. "The new owners have a lot of good ideas. It is passing from showman to showman. The DeWitts have sawdust in their blood."
Dever said that Gaudin and he are pleased that the DeWitts chose to sell the drive-in to them instead of looking for a more lucrative commercial deal. The valuable eight acres is located very close to the Interstate 74 exchange, so it can easily pull from surrounding counties as well as Shelby County.
"We feel that it is important to maintain the legacy established by Elmer DeWitt," Dever said.
Source: "A new heyday?" by B.J. Fairchild-Newman -The Shelbyville News. Read full article at: http://www.shelbynews.com/main.asp?SectionID=1&SubSectionID=93&ArticleID=60477&TM=61879.12