Karen and Ted Freiwald are the proprietors of the Ruskin Drive-In, but they say the theater really belongs to the community.
It's not uncommon for loyal customers to pick up trash left behind by others, and a few regulars will even admonish chronic litterbugs. Alcohol, drugs and rowdy behavior are banned; G- or PG-rated movies are the norm.
Consequently, family vans with parents and kids frequent the parking lot, and some fourth- and fifth-generation attendees know the Freiwalds by name. Kids stop Karen in the store and call her the "drive-in lady." One family refers to Ted as "Dad."
Over one of their acclaimed burgers, we talked about Ruskin's cinema institution, which opened on April 16, 1952.
ERNEST: Ted, you've been in the theater business for seven decades and you've operated this particular drive-in since 1977. How have things changed since you first started?
TED: There aren't many of us left, but our business has been better here because the way we operate the theater is as a family drive-in. No alcohol, no drugs, no rowdy behavior. Consequently, we end up with families and we try to play family films as much as possible.
What's the biggest challenge of running the drive-in?
KAREN: The weather would be the biggest challenge because you can't control the weather. But if it rains, they still come. If it's a movie they really want to see, they come in the rain. If it's a movie like Twister or Day After Tomorrow, and it's raining, you'll get twice as many people. It adds atmosphere. They love it.
It appears the food you serve is pretty popular.
KAREN: Lately, we've been having a lot of people come in: I don't want to see the movie, I just want food.
And the cheeseburgers are a favorite?
KAREN: It's not the $30 hand-massaged Kobe beef burger, but I don't think my customers would take a $30 burger over one of ours. We've had people come in here and say they won't go any place else. I go to Apollo Meats and they grind it right there. I get no more than 10 pounds, use that up, go get some more. That way it's fresh.
Ted, how did you get started in the business?
TED: My father had a farm right down the street where they built a drive-in in Palm Beach County and I thought it was the greatest thing I had ever seen in my life. I went down there and talked to this gentleman in 1948 and he said, Yes, I've got a job you could have. He gave me this little flashlight with an orange cone on it to park cars. He paid me 25 cents an hour, but some days I didn't see my 25 cents.
Karen, you've worked here since 1994 and you and Ted married in 1998. How did you meet?
KAREN: Some friends of mine worked here and they said, He's going to have a car show and he needs extra help. Do you want to help? I said, Yeah. I was hooked.
Were you hooked on Ted or the drive-in?
KAREN: A little of both.
TED: Who knows? I don't see how anybody could be hooked on either one of us.
KAREN: It's interesting. You meet a whole bunch of different people all the time.
With this being one of the few places with a drive-in, does that mean Ruskin is a throw-back to a different time?
KAREN: Ruskin's a throw-back, a good throw-back. The people who come from Bradenton and Sarasota and Venice, they come here because they realize they don't have a drive-in. They have to drive all that extra time for something we have in our own backyard.
So you have people come from all over?
KAREN: We have them from Bradenton, Sarasota, Venice. We have Orlando, Brandon, Valrico. We had some people from Germany (Sunday) night. We have this lady, once a year she comes to the drive-in. She's from Pennsylvania.
TED: The people down there are looking for nostalgia. They come to the drive-in to show their children. They're very aware that drive-ins are disappearing all over the United States.
Why is this drive-in still open?
KAREN: Because we're too stubborn to quit. I keep telling people if we ever close this drive-in, I would have to get a real job. And no one would have any place to go. There's nothing for a family to do in Ruskin or Apollo Beach, Riverview, Sun City Center, even Ellenton, Bradenton. If you want to spend $200 for a night, there's things you can do. But for families that are on a budget, there's nothing.
TED: We don't actually live out of this theater, so consequently, we can afford a little unprofitable nights to stay like we want to be. We don't have to worry that much about the bottom line. If we have 10 cars out here being nice and doing what they're supposed to do, I'm not happy about it, but I'm not unhappy about it.
With subdivisions popping up all over, I have to imagine some developer is eyeing this piece of real estate?
KAREN: He's not going to get it, not for a very, very long time.
TED: I'll be 72 in a couple of months. I told this one guy who came by here last year to come back when I was 80 and I might talk to him. I got about eight more years before I'm going to think about getting out. And Karen's nice and young, she likes it so she can run it after that.
You not only work here, but you live here in an on-site trailer. Why do you guys have such a passion for the drive-in?
TED: It's the only thing we know how to do. We haven't got a Hard Rock Cafe and $30 burgers.
DESSERT: A postscript from Ernest
Admission at the Ruskin Drive-In, 5011 U.S. 41, is $4.50 for everyone 9 and older. Throw in that you can see two movies, and it's a considerable bargain compared to your conventional indoor theater. Not only do people rave about the food, but the drive-in has received a string of perfect scores from the health department. Before each screening, Ted always asks customers to respect the rights of every person. "It's always 1955 and we go by 1950s rules."
Karen Freiwald has been at the drive-in since 1994; she and Ted married in 1998.