NORTH RIDGEVILLE - The cars start lining up on the enormous gravel lot well before sundown. There are the pros - the ones swooping efficiently into spots, the backs of the pickup trucks filled with inflatable mattresses and pillows, or trunks of regular cars overflowing with lawn chairs. And then there are the newbs - driving sedans and minivans tentatively down the crooked aisles, wondering how to angle their car to best view the screen, which radio station to dial in, and even what to do with headlights that come on automatically when the car is on.
By sunset, the rutted lot sandwiched between two giant screens is jammed with cars, all filled with moviegoers eager on a slightly chilly Saturday night to enjoy a double feature of “Solo: A Star Wars Story” and “Deadpool 2,” or on the other screen, “Adrift” and “Breaking In.”
The Aut-O-Rama Twin Drive-in, located in North Ridgeville and bounded by the Ohio Turnpike (with truck drivers who love to honk as they pass the giant screens) and very busy train tracks, has been entertaining summer movie goers for 53 years.
For many, it is the rite of summer, the stuff of family memories. For others, it’s something new and a little retro-tinged strange.
For all, it’s a blast.
The drive-in is one of the few left in Northeast Ohio and owes much of its success to keeping up with technology throughout the years, such as investing $150,000 in 2013 in digital technology.
In the mid 20th century, there were more than 4,000 drive-in theaters across America. There are about 300 drive-ins nationwide remaining, including the North Ridgeville venue, as well as drive-ins in Medina, Trumbull, Tuscarawas, Summit and Geauga counties. There are none in Cuyahoga County since the closing a decade ago of the Memphis Drive-In. The North Ridgeville venue is the only one in Lorain County.
The North Ridgeville Sherman family opened the Aut-O-Rama Twin Drive-in in 1965. The theater is still owned by the Sherman family, now in their fourth generation of employees. Deborah Sherman - who was born and raised in North Ridgeville and moved back five years ago after living in North Olmsted for 40 years - said her grandchildren, ages 7, 9 and 11, help with running the register and other tasks. Her late husband’s father, George Sherman, built the theater 53 years ago. She took charge after her husband, Tom, died 25 years ago.
She is responsible for day-to-day operations and paperwork and helps out at the concession area and running the registers. Her son Tim works full time with her and does just about everything at the theater. He’s a fix-it guy, she said.
Today is the 85th anniversary of the very first drive-in opening. To celebrate, there will be a double feature showing of “Grease” and “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” at the Aut-O-Rama. There will also be specials, including 85 cent popcorn and 85 cent sodas, for those making it to the outdoor venue.
Sherman said that for some reason - and she’s not sure why - Ohio is one of the more popular drive-in states. There are many theories, she said, including the idea that there are many car enthusiasts in the area, and that the state has relatively mild summers.
Why did drive-ins start disappearing and nearly hit extinction in the 1980s? Sherman said cable television was one reason. People could enjoy movies in the comfort of their own home and didn’t want to bother driving to their entertainment. But the Sherman family waited out the tough times, and eventually, people started returning because they wanted to enjoy going out on weekends again, Sherman said. Business, she said, picked up in the early ’90s … and just keeps getting better.
While old-fashioned on the surface - large screens looming over giant parking lots - the technology is not old school. As mentioned, Aut-O-Rama upgraded in 2013 to digital projectors, beaming out of the second-floor of the centrally located building housing concessions and bathrooms.
According to Sherman, the expense of the digital projector in 2013 is nearly paid-off, thanks in part to a ban on customers bringing their own snacks.
“It (the digital projector) has worked very well for us and has provided better picture and sound,” Sherman said. “People seem to appreciate it.”
And no longer do theatergoers have to park next to poles with feisty speakers. Instead, attendees tune into separate radio stations for each screen. They have the option of bringing their own radios, or using the car radio. In addition, the theater has rental radios if needed.
(Fun fact: If you just turn your car on for the radio, without switching to the “accessory mode,” you could drain your car’s battery. And the folks at Aut-O-Rama know that. At the end of each movie/double feature, they offer free jumps for all dead cars.)
“The sound systems people have in their cars now gives them a great experience,” Sherman said. “Sometimes you can really feel a car shake during an exciting action scene.”
Each Wednesday, the theater has subtitles for those hearing impaired.
“They don’t have to worry about having to ask someone to interpret the movie,” Sherman said. “We began doing this a couple years ago and are getting a bigger following.”
Aut-O-Rama also has the advantage of two screens while most drive-ins only had one, she said. Two screens allow the drive-in to be more competitive.
The majority of customers are family, though the drive-in sees a little bit of everyone.
“We get all kinds but families are definitely one of our bigger audiences,” Sherman said. “Older people are a newer audience with baby boomers who grew up with the drive-in either bringing their grandkids or coming out on a date night.”
Groups of teenagers and young people with dates still show up, she said.
“I mean (the drive-in) is really the experience,” said North Ridgeville resident Mike Doran on a recent Friday night. “Also, you get two movies for the price of one so there’s that too.”
The theater hosts many special events and theme nights throughout the summer. Every Tuesday, the drive-in hosts a “Retro Tuesday Series,” in which mostly movies from the ’80s are played.
Aut-O-Rama is also hosting a “Christmas in July” celebration, with Christmas movies, and will have Santa himself wandering around to greet patrons. They will also have decorations and face painters.
June 22 will be “Super Incredible Night,” where a group of people will dress up as superheroes to raise money for kids with severe illnesses. They will visit the hospitals themselves to give the money they raised.” They do this in affiliation with Valley Storage. The drive-in will begin playing “Incredibles 2” that weekend.
July 21 is “Bring Your Dog to the Drive-in Night.” The theater does not normally allow dogs but with a $5 donation, people can feel free to bring them. This money goes toward the rescue group Multiple Breed Rescue in Elyria.
“Retro Halloween Weekend” is the biggest event the drive-in hosts, Sherman said. One screen will show scary movies, while the other features more “kid friendly” Halloween fare. People are encouraged to dress up because there is a costume contest. They also have a trunk-or-treat event where people can park and pass out candy from their trunks.
The drive-in is between the Ohio Turnpike and an active railroad track, but a simple turn of the radio volume dial fixes any excess noise.
The concession area, with Disney and other cartoon characters on the walls, ‘60s decor and an overall “throwback” vibe, offers burgers, popcorn, slushies, fries, subs, wraps, coffee, water, soda and their popular pizza.
About 35 workers keep things hopping during the summer months, include bright-yellow shirted employees in the parking lot, helping people figure out the radio station, how to cover headlight and, of course, assisting with jumper cables when needed - usually about two to three cars per lot per night.
Sherman said it’s important to her to keep the drive-in going because so many people have told her they hope it never closes. Many will show up and say they used to go there when they were younger and are now bringing their kids or grandchildren.
The theater typically cuts off the main screen at 550 cars and the second screen at 350. The two screens were built to hold 600 and 400 but it is difficult to get that many cars in, Sherman said.
Sherman said the theater typically tries to play family movies. If there aren’t many family movies playing, they then choose whatever movie they believe will be the most popular. They have to pick what will draw a larger crowd, Sherman said.
“We still have the landscaping and all that to take care of, but I think it’s because so many indoor theaters are big corporations where drive ins are mostly independently owned,” Sherman said. “Most drive-in owners are in it because they love it and it’s a way of life to them.”