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Outdoor home theaters let families watch movies under the stars

I grew up in the shadows of drive-in theater screens, tall towers looming blank in daytime and bathed in projector-light dreams after dark.

My father was a movie exhibitor, managing indoor theaters and drive-ins through my teenage years. I was conceived behind a drive-in on U.S. 19 in Pasco County, not in the back seat as others likely were but in a house that was part of the manager's salary in those days.

Watching movie stars under the stars — sometimes gazing upward from playground equipment in front of the tower — are special memories.

I'm not alone in that affection, judging by the number of outdoor theater events sponsored by community groups at parks, swimming pools, anywhere people can set up lawn chairs and coolers before a temporary screen. Drive-ins are nearly extinct but often crowded with cars where available.

It's a family affair for those viewers, too. That's why they're bringing it home.

Living rooms are widely subbing for megaplexes with large-screen televisions, DVD players and surrounding audio systems. Now a growing number of homeowners are building backyard theater experiences, encouraged by the availability of inflatable screens and portable technology.

Movie lovers like Randy Fisk of Coral Valley, Ill., construct more elaborate outdoor theater systems that would make Home Improvement's Tim Taylor drool.

Fisk collects such strategies and photographs on his Web site, BackyardTheater.com.

"Originally it was only us geeks who were interested," Fisk said over the phone recently. "Over time, people in business have had to use projectors and got friendly with the whole idea. (The site) is a way to chronicle what's working and what doesn't. It's not rocket science."

But it can be trial and error. Fisk's first attempt a decade ago resulted in a heavy plywood screen that blew down during a storm. Now his back yard features a 12-foot-wide aluminum frame with stretched screen fabric, raised 7 feet off the ground. Electronic components are kept on a rolling cart to avoid weather damage.

Construction inexperience or neighborhood deed restrictions may make such a permanent set-up prohibitive.

Fisk recommends that newbies take an easier, economical and temporary route for starters.

"It doesn't have to be really dynamic," he said. "It can be a bed sheet and a borrowed projector."

For a more aesthetically pleasing setup, an inflatable screen is a smart beginning. Twelve-foot models are available online from several outlets such as WalMart.com, ranging in price from $198 (including one modeled after Mickey Mouse) to $229.

Each unit comes with an attached air blower, plus tethering cords and anchor spikes. Just plug it in, secure the screen and air continually circulates, maintaining inflation.

"For the vast majority of people, these inflatables are very handy," Fisk said. "They're typically stored in a bag, and in three or four minutes you're ready to go."

Practically any DVD-friendly technology with solid audio capabilities may be used, from game boxes and laptop computers to high-end players. The trick is using a DVD source connectable to a projector — the most expensive component — that also plugs into satisfactory speakers stationed at the base of the screen. Adapters or longer cables may be required.

Projectors are available at many electronics and discount stores and their Web sites, priced at $500 and way up. If that's too pricey, some rental stores offer projectors for less than $50 per week. If you're lucky enough to work at a business that owns a projector, ask about borrowing one for the weekend. (Inviting the boss' family would boost that chance.)

That is, unless you're the boss, like Ron Lee and Kristin Coffey, owners of Cheers Events, a party-planning company. Lee and Coffey regularly supply private and corporate events with all the necessary equipment. When it isn't booked, they may set up a theater in their St. Petersburg back yard for personal entertainment.

With the proper setup, a backyard movie theater is the next best thing to drive-in days. I went the flashback route on my 50th birthday, buying a discounted inflatable screen and trading it to a party service for providing the projector and audio. More than 100 of my closest friends enjoyed The Big Lebowski under December moonlight, preceded by vintage preview trailers and concession stand ads.

The only things missing were Pic mosquito repellent coils (who needs DDT?) and honking car horns. And a swing set.

Steve Persall can be reached at persall@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/ movies.

Outdoor home theaters let families watch movies under the stars 11/28/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 3, 2008 4:07pm]

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