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Ruskin Family Drive-In needs $150K to move into digital film era by 2013

On Saturday, rows of cars line up to watch Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides at the Ruskin Family Drive-In.  An industry move to digital by 2013 puts the place in a tough spot.

BRYAN THOMAS | Times

On Saturday, rows of cars line up to watch Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides at the Ruskin Family Drive-In. An industry move to digital by 2013 puts the place in a tough spot.

Hidden amid the shadows of the snack bar's warm glow sits a dusty little room filled with history.

Tools line the walls. A stack of tin dog bowls rests atop a cabinet, and in the center of the room, a projector more than 67 years old hums quietly.

Technology will soon silence the big machine and could force the shutdown of the theater altogether. Before long, the film and the antiquated projector will be gone, replaced by a digital system that plays movies with the plug of a flash drive and the push of a button.

That is, if the owners of the single-screen drive-in can afford it. By 2013, production companies plan to stop distributing movies on film. With no flicks to show, the owners of the Ruskin Family Drive-In will be forced to close unless they can raise the money to buy new equipment.

Opened in 1952, the Ruskin drive-in is one of only two left in the county and six in the entire state, according to drive-ins.com, a website that monitors the drive-in movie industry.

The Freiwalds are not alone. The transition to digital has many small movie theaters and drive-ins wondering what to do. Some are raising money, others are taking on debt and some have no plans to change at all.

The Fun-Lan Drive-In in Tampa hasn't decided whether to go digital yet, said manager Ruth McPhee. "The owner has checked into it, but he's got a feeling digital isn't going to last long," McPhee said.

But Ted and Karen Freiwald, who own the Ruskin drive-in, see digital everywhere, in cameras, phones, televisions and soon, their own theater. They estimate it will cost $150,000 to make the transition. They have two years to come up with it.

Raising prices at the box office and the snack bar are not an option, they say. Neither is closing. So they'll rely on the community that has kept them open all these years.

They must raise the money, Karen Freiwald said.

"The alternative is a rocking chair on the front porch," she said, adding that at 54 she's too young for that.

• • •

On a recent Friday evening, cars filled the parking lot of the Ruskin drive-in, which is technically in Apollo Beach. Parents spread blankets out for children. The smell of bug spray hung heavy in the air.

It's the start of summer, the drive-in's busiest time of the year.

Some patrons come for the price: $5 for adults, $1 for children ages 5 to 8 and free for the young ones ­— for two movies.

Dinner is inexpensive, too. "And it's good," said Gayle Holmes, a Riverview resident who has been coming to the drive-in for 20 years. Her family's dinner usually consists of the snack bar's hot dogs, pizza and burgers.

"It's all homemade," she said.

Some come for the nostalgia: "It was our childhood," said Larry Castillo, of Ruskin. "We used to come here when we were kids. Now we bring our grandkids."

And some come for the family atmosphere: "I always felt safe bringing my girls by myself," said Michelle Davenport of Riverview. "There are never any problems out here."

No one wants to see it go away.

"Everything else for families closes down," said Christine Castillo. "It's important kids have a place to come. A lot of places are just for adults."

Some even offered ideas on how to raise the money.

"They could have big garage sales out here," said Sandy Antis, of Valrico.

Residents have rallied to help the drive-in before, Ted Freiwald said. In 2005, customers inundated the county tax collector's office with phone calls when the Freiwalds thought they wouldn't be able to cover a sudden increase in the property tax bill. The outcry got the attention of public officials, who had the property reappraised, resulting in a lower bill.

This time he hopes customers will show their support through the purchase of T-shirts, movie posters and anything else he and his wife can sell.

The Freiwalds don't want to raise prices because they worry about the families that already struggle to have a simple night out.

"These families can't afford more," said Freiwald, 78. "The economy is bad enough as is. Some people are lucky they can afford the $5."

Neither owner can imagine a life without the drive-in. Freiwald, who has worked at drive-ins across Florida since he was 15, bought the theater in 1977. His wife joined the Ruskin drive-in's crew in 1994 and married Freiwald a few years later. They live in a trailer behind the drive-in's screen.

Getting an early start on fundraising efforts is important with such a large sum of money to raise, they said.

As one of their longest customers, Holmes said she's sure residents will make it happen.

"The loss of this place would be devastating to this community," she said.

A widowed mother of five, Holmes developed a personal connection to the drive-in and the Freiwalds when she realized the drive-in was one of the few places she felt safe taking her children alone, including her now 23-year-old son, Joshua, who has Down syndrome.

She still comes here almost every two weeks, she said. It's one of her son's favorite things to do.

With no kids of their own, the Freiwalds embrace their customers like family. Invited to Josh Holmes' graduation, they gave him a lifetime movie pass as a gift.

"They are just wonderful people," Holmes said. "They make this the family place that it is."

Darlene De La Paz agrees. She has been going to the drive-in since she was little. Now, the 18-year-old is spending the summer working there before she heads to her first year at Flagler College. She wants to make sure it's still there when she comes back from school.

"I'm trying to get the teenagers to recognize how cool this place is," she said. "I hope this place never closes."

In the long run, digital will make life easier for the Freiwalds and will create a better experience for moviegoers. Digital movies are cheaper to transport, easier to store and can play multiple times without fear of the wear and tear that can plague film.

But nothing can replace the memories film helped to create.

Each night Ted Freiwald opens the projection room door and lets a child start the movie. He hands out a certificate to commemorate the occasion.

"That won't happen anymore," he said.

He's not even sure he'll be allowed in the little dusty room near the expensive digital projector. He still gets nervous using his iPod, he joked.

But that's all right, he said, if it means they get to remain open.

"These people seem to like this place. We don't want to close."

Shelley Rossetter can be reached at srossetter@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2442.

>> Fast facts

If you go

The Ruskin Family Drive-In, at 5011 U.S. 41 N, is open seven days a week year- round. For a list of movies playing and showtimes, visit ruskinfamilydrivein.com or call (813) 645-1455. How to help: For information on how to help, e-mail ruskinfamilydrivein@juno.com.

Ruskin Family Drive-In needs $150K to move into digital film era by 2013 06/16/11 [Last modified: Thursday, June 16, 2011 5:30am]
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