The Starlite Drive-In’s sudden closure announcement on Monday stunned many in Wichita.
Even beyond Wichita, the news that the Starlite Drive-In had permanently closed came as a surprise to people familiar with the business.
In an emailed statement to his employees on Monday, Starlite owner Chuck Bucinski said he was closing the business because of “declining attendance, increased film rentals, and higher maintenance costs.”
Now a couple members of the United Drive-In Theater Owners Association, a national organization for drive-in theater owners, are trying to save the Starlite.
Rick Cohen, owner of the Transit Drive-In in Buffalo, N.Y., and Blake Smith, co-owner of the Admiral Twin Drive-In in Tulsa, Okla., have extended a cash offer starting at $750,000 to purchase the Starlite from Bucinski and keep it running.
Both Cohen and Smith were in separate negotiations to buy the Starlite from longtime owner Jim Goble before he died of cancer in 2015.
“What’s happening is really a tragedy,” Cohen said. “It’s not like closing a McDonald’s. You cannot rebuild a drive-in in this day and age from the ground up. Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever and there’s no replacing it.”
How the Starlite came to this
Goble, who bought the Starlite in 1998, considered the drive-in his lasting legacy, said Cohen, who considered himself a close friend of Goble’s.
His health declined rapidly in 2015, and Goble wanted to sell the drive-in to someone in Wichita who would preserve that legacy, Cohen said.
Cohen offered $750,000 for it then, but Goble wouldn’t entertain the offer.
He wanted someone local, Cohen said.
According to the Register of Deeds website, Emprise Bank issued a mortgage on the Starlite for $340,000 in 1998 when Goble bought it. There are also two second mortgages for roughly $147,000 each on the property, held with two of Goble’s longtime friends in Denver.
Goble had hired Bucinski, who had been living in Fort Collins, Colo., as a manager at the Starlite in 2015.
Goble left the theater to Bucinski in his will, and Bucinski has been paying monthly on those three separate mortgages, said one of the mortgage holders, who asked not to be publicly identified.
Goble was a single man who lived in Denver and had no kids to bequeath the drive-in to.
“We had an appraisal done … to create a value for accounting purposes and tax purposes by Jim’s accountant, and it was appraised, I think, at $1 million, but the appraisal said the business was valueless – there was only land value there,” the mortgage holder said.
He said he understands a sale has already been finalized on the Starlite Drive-In, and it is expected to close at the end of November, after a Nov. 13 liquidation auction.
The mortgage holder said he was unaware of Bucinski’s plans to sell until a few weeks ago when Bucinski inquired about mortgage payoff amounts.
“We always told Chuck if you ever have a bad year or if you need help, we can reduce payments on the mortgage, we can work with you on it, and we never heard a word from him on that,” he said.
As of Friday, the identity of the drive-in’s potential buyer is unknown.
The Starlite was the first theater Bucinski had ever owned, having worked previously as a manager for other theaters, including the Holiday Twin Drive-In in Fort Collins, Colo.
Smith, the owner of the Tulsa drive-in, said Bucinski contacted him fairly early into his ownership of the Starlite and “felt a little overwhelmed ... because he had never been a business owner,” he said.
“He was considering maybe trying to sell it” to Smith then, he said, but those discussions never progressed, partially because Smith’s wife had just had a baby and he didn’t want to add to his plate at the time.
“Now that it’s been a couple years, I was thinking about ... maybe approaching him about buying it again, but I didn’t really get going fast enough, obviously,” he said.
Smith said he can sympathize with Bucinski – the drive-in business can be tough, he said.
“When you’re only open seasonally and only at night, I would say it’s a tough road,” Smith said. “You have to kind of really like doing it. The (drive-in owners) that last tend to be people that are really passionate about it.”
Cohen disputes that the Starlite could have been in that much trouble financially – “that drive-in was never losing money ever,” he said.
“I’d love to see his books, I tell you. That was one of the most well-supported drive-in theaters in the country,” Cohen said. “Wichita is a very good market to be in. … This was not some run-down, neglected drive-in out in the middle of nowhere.”
In a Sedgwick County divorce filing from January 2018, Bucinski reported earning a gross annual income of $66,720 from the theater.
Bucinski did not return messages. In his note to employees this week announcing the Starlite’s closing, he wrote that he would not respond to attempts to contact him.
Cohen said it’s considered common courtesy that, if a drive-in theater comes up for sale, the owner will alert other drive-in owners who might be interested in maintaining the theater operation.
“(Bucinski is) not even making any effort at all to sell it or make it available for sale to someone who would want to keep it open,” he said.
At this point, it’s unclear what the future of the Starlite looks like – though it would be hard for it to reopen as a drive-in once its screens, speakers and other furnishings are auctioned off on Nov. 13.
“(Goble’s) biggest fears were after he was gone that someone would run it down below his standards, which he had very high standards for the drive-in, or that someone would just cash in and sell it to a developer, which is exactly what is happening,” Cohen said.
Prior to this summer, a protective overlay on the property at 3900 S. Hydraulic allowed for the land to be used only as a drive-in.
When a rezoning request was passed this summer, that protective overlay was removed, allowing for “a greater number of industrial and commercial uses.”
Baughman Co., the land-development company that represented Bucinski, suggested this summer there would be a “relatively clean industrial development (there) if and when the Starlite ever … ceases to operate,” referencing a “warehouse distribution center, potentially.”
The drive-in is within a mile of major highways, including the Kansas Turnpike, I-135 and I-235.
When asked about the zoning request this summer, Bucinski, then 36, told The Eagle — and members of the public — that the zoning change was solely for estate-planning purposes, and that the Starlite was operating as normal.
The two-screen outdoor theater — the only one in south-central Kansas — successfully navigated the transition to digital projectors in 2013 thanks to an extensive community fundraising effort. The projectors cost nearly $100,000 per screen.
There are now four drive-in theaters still operating in Kansas.
It opened as the Rainbow Drive-In in 1953 and became the Landmark Twin in 1974.