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Ruskin drive-in theater goes digital to survive


Shrouded in a black garbage bag, the 67-year-old film projector sits in a corner of the small booth.

Last weekend, it played its final film at the Ruskin Family Drive-In.

A new machine, humming with life, is in line to take over. The digital projector has all the bells and whistles the film version lacked, and a hefty price tag to go with it.

Owners Ted and Karen Freiwald estimate the transition to digital will cost about $150,000. After raising a small percentage of that on their own, they are now borrowing from a private lender.

It's a risk for the one-screen theater built in 1952, but a necessary one. By 2013, production companies plan to stop distributing movies on film. Digital will soon be a theater's only choice.

"We had to do it," Karen Freiwald said. "You've got to do what you've got to do."

It's a decision many small theater and drive-in owners struggle with these days. Some are raising money, others are taking on debt and some may be forced to shut down.

By borrowing, the Freiwalds hope they have secured the drive-in's future for years to come. The Ruskin drive-in is one of only seven in the entire state, according to, a website that monitors the outdoor movie business.

After a weeklong installation, the Freiwalds will reopen their drive-in today to present their first digital movie.

The audience will notice a difference right away, Karen Freiwald said.

"The colors are vibrant, the images are crisp and the sound is clear," she said. "It's like when you switch to the HD channel at home and you go 'Wow.' "

The family-friendly theater runs a new double feature every two weeks. Karen Freiwald is looking forward to seeing animated movies with the new technology.

The new projector features a touchscreen interface. No more splicing or feeding film across the lens. Just insert an external hard drive loaded with a movie, enter a password provided by the production company and it's showtime.

The system is so easy to use, the Freiwalds are hoping to institute date night and leave their employees in charge every once in a while.

"We might venture out to Applebee's," Karen Freiwald said. "But not to the movies."

Though the new technology has brought excitement to the small theater, the change is bittersweet.

Ted Freiwald, 78, bought the drive-in in 1977 and has worked in the movie industry since he was 15.

Most of his nights have been spent in a projection booth. Now, it feels like a foreign land.

"He's adjusting," said Karen Freiwald, 54.

Freiwald asked his wife to speak on his behalf, telling her the digital world is all hers.

"Just give him a few weeks," she said.

Staying open will require community effort.

The drive-in plans to continue fundraising efforts with T-shirt sales and more, she said.

"This is an accomplishment for not only us but for everyone who comes to this theater," she said.

And the community is glad to have them stay, said Melanie Morrison, the director of the South Shore Chamber of Commerce. "If you drive by there on any given night it's packed. The community really comes out and supports them. It's a big part of the area's history and current time."

On Friday, the Freiwalds expect a lot of curious customers will want to take a peek inside the projection booth. They'll be allowed in.

Gone, though, will be the nightly tradition of allowing an audience member, often a child, to start the film.

They can look, but they can't touch, Karen Freiwald said.

All the while, the old projector will sit silently against the wall, collecting dust as the rest of the world moves on.

"It will probably stay there forever," Karen Freiwald said. "He won't ever let it out of the building."

Shelley Rossetter can be reached at or (813) 661-2442.

>>Fast facts

If you go

The Ruskin Family Drive-In is at 5011 U.S. 41 N.

What's playing: Today through March 22 is The Secret World of Arrietty and John Carter.

Admission: $5 per person for both movies, $1 per child (ages 5 to 8) and free for children 4 and younger.

For more information: Call (813) 645-1455 or go to

Ruskin drive-in theater goes digital to survive 03/08/12 [Last modified: Thursday, March 8, 2012 11:13pm]
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