Keeper of the Plans

The Starlite Drive-In opens this weekend. Here’s what to expect.

A night at the Starlite Drive-In

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

FIre up those car heaters: The Starlite Drive-In is officially open for the season as of this weekend.

There are a few changes in store for the theater at 3900 S. Hydraulic, which is under new management after being saved from near-certain destruction in December.

The Starlite’s new operator, Blake Smith — who is co-owner of Tulsa’s Admiral Twin Drive-In — said this week his first priority is to “get this business stable.”

“We’ve made a few changes here and there, modernizing a few of the ideas and taking practices being used across the country at successful drive-ins,” he said. “It’s not as if I’m completely changing the game.”

The drive-in had a soft opening last weekend, which pulled “more than what I had thought we would do,” Smith said. Frigid temperatures and the threat of a snowstorm on Saturday made for a bit of unfortunate timing for the outdoor drive-in’s opening.

Though much of the drive-in remains the same, here are some of the most notable changes that have been made already.

The car speakers are gone

Those old, retro speakers attached to the poles in the drive-in parking lot?

They’re gone — a casualty of when the drive-in was set to be on the auction block last year.

Now, in order to hear the movies being projected, attendees must tune in to a certain FM radio station.

Smith said he has updated and improved the theater’s FM radio transmitter, which provide clear sound anywhere on the premises.

That’s not to say he won’t look at the possibility of bringing back the car speakers in the future — though finding someone who specializes in those kind of speakers in 2019 is a challenge, he admits.

“The way they were taken down kind of left us behind the eight-ball whether we could get any of them back up,” Smith said. “We’ve got great sound now. Will we add more sound in the future? We probably will, but what that is we don’t know exactly.”

For those wary that leaving the car radio on all night will drain your battery, don’t fret: The drive-in does have jump-start boxes that can be used if your car dies — though Smith said, from his Tulsa experience, that’s a rare occurrence.

The picture is brighter

With the help of a $200,000 low-interest loan from the City of Wichita (and a community pledge drive), Smith was able to outfit the theater with two new Christie projectors.

Smith said he has heard from Starlite regulars that these new projectors appear brighter on screen than the theater’s old Barco DP4K-32D projectors did. Those projectors were sold off by previous owner Chuck Bucinski back when the property was slated to become home to a warehouse.

“(Christie) is one of the top projector companies in the country — I’m really proud of the picture we’re getting,” Smith said. “Hopefully they’ll hold up and we’ll be in good shape.”

Ticketing will mostly be individual

The question on many Starlite fans’ minds: Will carload pricing make a return in 2019?

Probably not, save for a few select nights throughout the season, Smith said.

Film companies, which demand most of the profits on tickets sold at theaters, historically have not been fond of the per-carload pricing system.

To soften the blow, Smith has lowered individual ticket prices for everybody at the theater.

Adults 12 and older are $7 and children 3-11 years old are $3. Ticket prices were previously $9 for adults

“The carload price, unless you had a lot of people, didn’t really work — I would tell you, out of every ten cars, probably six of them are two people,” Smith said. “At best you were saving maybe one dollar.

“It’s the same pricing system I have in Tulsa. Will we do maybe a few carload nights throughout the season? We probably will, but I don’t know exactly what right now.”

Triple-feature nights are probably also gone

The days of being out at the Starlite until the wee hours of the morning are likely over, Smith said.

Smith said in 2019, the Starlite will “probably do mostly double-features and maybe a few triple-features.”

In the past, the drive-in would host triple-feature nights screening three movies, with the final movie typically not starting until midnight or later.

“The triple-feature sounds good in philosophy, but ... it’s kind of hard to make it through six hours of movies,” he said. “That’s what I’ve been told by the old ownership and management group, and the numbers bear that out a bit.

“Seven dollars for two movies, we hope, is still a pretty good deal for folks.”

Possibly more changes to come

Smith said he wants to emphasize that his plans are always subject to change, that things can change for the Starlite down the line.

“Just because we’re doing something now doesn’t mean we won’t do something different in the future,” he said. “We’re not done. We just wanted to get it opened and get a few dollars in here. We’ll kind of be working on things as we’re open and see what works and what doesn’t work.”

The Starlite Drive-In will be open this weekend from Friday through Sunday for two double-features. On its first screen, “Captain Marvel” will play at 7:30 p.m., followed by “Ralph Breaks the Internet” at 9:35 p.m. On its second screen, “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” will play at 7:40 p.m., followed by “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” at 9:30 p.m.

For more information on the theater, visit its website at www.starlitefun.com or call 316-524-2424.

Matt Riedl covers arts and entertainment news for the Wichita Eagle and has done so since 2015. He maintains the Keeper of the Plans blog on Facebook, dedicated to keeping Wichitans abreast of all things fun.

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