Arts & Culture

Starlite Drive-In fans, potential buyer rally to save it from sale to developers

Starlite fans rally to save iconic drive-in theatre

Fans of the Starlite Drive-In gathered at Chapin Park on Saturday to hold a rally that they hoped would convince the current owner of the business not to sell it to developers.
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Fans of the Starlite Drive-In gathered at Chapin Park on Saturday to hold a rally that they hoped would convince the current owner of the business not to sell it to developers.

If enough people show that they care, maybe the owner of the Starlite Drive-In will change his mind.

Maybe the developers he’s rumored to be dealing with will back out.

Maybe Starlite can be saved.

Maybe.

That’s all the hope potential buyer and New-York-based drive-in theater owner Rick Cohen could offer people hoping to keep the 65-year-old theater around.

“There isn’t a lot that I can say,” Cohen told a crowd of about 100 people rallying on Saturday afternoon at a park behind the theater, sharing memories and hoping someone out there will listen.

“I have communication with representatives of the owner, and we are trying to see if there’s something we can do,” Cohen said.

“There’s still time — there’s not a lot of time — but there’s still time to reverse the direction,” Cohen said.

Cohen said whatever happens in the next 10 days will decide the future of the Starlite Drive-In. On Nov. 13, a liquidation auction of the drive-in theater is scheduled.

“If that auction takes place, I’m not going to be able to save the drive-in after that,” Cohen said.

A group of people, led by relatives of longtime theater manager Jim Quick, and Cohen, who traveled to Wichita from Buffalo on Saturday, tried to rally enough support from the community to convince the owner not to sell and the rumored buyer not to redevelop the theater into something other than a drive-in.

“Once it’s gone, it’s gone,” said Jim Quick’s daughter, Beth.

Chuck Bucinski, who was left the drive-in theater by previous owner Jim Goble through his will two years ago, sent a letter to employees last month announcing the closure, citing declining attendance, increased film rentals and higher maintenance costs as reasons for closing.

“I’ve seen the numbers,” Cohen said, “and this drive-in had no problem making money.”

But Cohen, who owns a drive-in theater in New York, said that he’s not in it for the money.

A tribute to Goble and Quick, longtime owner-manager partners at the Starlite Drive-In, plays at the theater every night before previews begin. (Courtesy of Starlite Drive-In)

“I want to save Starlite because Jim Goble was my friend, and he wanted it to stay open forever,” Cohen said.

Cohen said the Starlite is “the envy of the country” when it comes to drive-ins, and that he’s not looking to buy any other theaters.

If Cohen gets Starlite, he said he’ll put a restriction on the deed requiring it to remain a drive-in theater.

Generations of Starlite fans and former employees took turns stepping up to a microphone and sharing memories of the drive-in theater and reasons it shouldn’t go.

Some worry closing Starlite will take away one of the few affordable options for large families who want to spend time together. Others think Starlite provides a sense of community and a shared cultural landmark that spans generations.

“We’re losing something potentially that is so valuable for our kids,” said Jennifer White of Wichita. “To learn how to be in a community with each other and how to run around and play and get dirty and be silly and be too loud for the theater and be ornery and be a pain in the butt, because they’re kids.

“That’s what we’re potentially losing with this, and that’s what we have to fight for.”

Others lamented the closings of several family-friendly places in the Wichita area, from Joyland to Lawrence-Dumont Stadium to the Palace West theater.

“We want to let these developers know that we want them to stop taking things way,” said Mabel Pfannenstiel of Wichita. “I love Starlite Drive-In. Starlite is one of the few places where you can just be yourself.”

“There are plenty of other places to develop a warehouse or a strip mall,” Cohen said. “But what Wichita has here is something special and unique, and if it goes away, it’ll never come back.”

Some of the sights and sounds associated with a night at Wichita's drive-in movie theater (April 2016).

Chance Swaim: 316-206-3666, @byChanceSwaim
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