For many movie-goers, the “outside” is in this season.
Wichita’s Starlite Drive-In has had solid attendance since its official opening last month, and management hopes to build on that start over the summer months.
It’s a new era for the drive-in theater, both in terms of technology and ownership.
That’s perhaps a good thing for the Starlite, which wants to stick around as Wichita’s last drive-in movie theater.
“As long as the town of Wichita continues to come and continues to support, we’ll be here for many more years to come,” said Chuck Bucinski, the new owner.
On a recent Saturday, Bucinski kept watch over the funnel cake fryer at the Starlite Drive-In.
Then Bucinski had to dash off to the men’s bathroom – the soap dispensers were empty.
Bucinski, 34, owns the Starlite Drive-In, one of a handful of drive-ins left in Kansas.
He took over operations at the drive-in after its previous owner, Jim Goble, died in December. Goble had bought the theater in 1998.
Bucinski has worked in the theater industry his entire life, since his beginnings as a “concessionist” at an indoor movie theater in Des Moines.
He became a manager at the Holiday Twin Drive-In in Fort Collins, Colo., in 2005 and “fell in love” with outdoor theaters, he said.
Goble, who had been an active member of the United Drive-In Theater Owners Association, frequently visited drive-ins across the country, meeting with management – including Bucinski at the Holiday Twin.
Bucinski later accepted a job at an indoor movie theater after working at the Holiday Twin, but realized his passion was for the drive-in.
All the while, Goble “always just kept a bug in my ear that you can come to the (Starlite) drive-in whenever you want,” Bucinski said.
Bucinski joined the Starlite’s management team in 2015. He said he anticipated Goble would one day retire, affording him the opportunity to take over the drive-in.
He didn’t anticipate it would happen so soon.
When Goble died in December, his estate contacted Bucinski to ask if he’d be interested in taking over the theater.
He said yes.
He purchased the Starlite Drive-In and is in the process of paying it off, he said.
While the theater isn’t making him a millionaire, he said it “holds its own compared to the indoor theaters.”
Bucinski said he wants to modernize some aspects of the drive-in – bathrooms, concession sales – while “keeping up with the traditions, the nostalgia.”
“We are one of the the nicest drive-ins in the country, I would say,” he said. “We’re going to keep it as nice as possible, upgrade equipment when it’s needed, and (keep) it a family-friendly theater. … Jim Goble and Jim Quick would have wanted it that way.”
Original manager returns
Just a few months before Goble died, the theater lost its manager, Jim Quick, who had worked at the theater for more than 30 years.
For nearly four decades, either Jim Quick or his brother, Gary, managed the theater.
Gary Quick managed the Starlite – known then as the Landmark Twin – when it opened in 1974. When Gary left in 1983, Jim Quick took over and was a constant presence at the theater until his health began to decline around 2012.
Gary, now 70, volunteers at the Starlite, performing some of the duties his brother – and he – used to.
The Starlite dedicated its 2016 season to Goble and Jim Quick as a way to honor them.
A short video tribute to Quick and Goble plays every night before the previews begin.
“It’s tough not to have them here, because they were a big part of the theater for so long,” Chuck Bucinski said. “They will always be a part of the theater.”
The Starlite installed digital projectors in 2013 – nearly $100,000 per screen, according to management. The Starlite has two screens and room for 1,300 cars – 800 on one side and 500 on the other.
Gone are the days of massive film reels. Gone also are the days when a theater worker had to change out the reels between movies.
“It’s all automatic,” Bucinski said, walking through the now-outsized projector room above the Starlite’s concession area.
Films are shipped to the Starlite on a hard drive – for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” that hard drive includes 382 gigabyes of footage.
The hard drive is inserted into a computer, which “ingests” the movie into the system, usually taking a couple of hours.
A Starlite worker programs the pre-show advertisements for “Chilly Dilly” pickles and such, and then it’s as simple as pushing play.
“I love it, but I also miss the old days,” Bucinski said.
The transition to digital projectors sunk many drive-in theaters across the country, Bucinski said.
Wichitans’ willingness to donate money when the Starlite needed new projectors gives Bucinski hope that the theater will survive for years to come, he said.
“I just love when the families (come) out and (tell) me how much they enjoy the environment, how much they enjoy bringing the family here to the theater to watch a movie under the stars,” he said. “Nothing’s better than that.”
A typical Saturday night
On a recent 67-degree Saturday evening, the Stansfield family packed up their blankets and pillows for a trip to the Starlite.
Just before dusk, Joshua Stansfield, 9, and his dad grabbed their baseball mitts and played catch in the gravel.
“It’s so beautiful out – like, who would not enjoy this?” Joshua said. “All you’re doing is spending time with your family watching a movie, and you don’t have to be crammed into an air-conditioned room.
“You can feel the nature.”
Until Memorial Day, people are charged $13 by the carload to get into the drive-in, which is currently only open Fridays and Saturdays.
Starting Memorial Day, the theater opens every night and tickets are $9 for people 12 and older and $3 for children 5 through 11. Around the middle of August, the theater returns to per-carload pricing until the season ends in the fall.
Amber Wilson took advantage of the by-the-carload pricing on a recent Saturday, bringing her children to the theater on a recent Saturday to watch “Zootopia.”
Wilson said she usually brings her family to the drive-in about 15 times every season.
“We just love to come – it’s a good family value, that’s for sure,” she said. “We also just like to keep the tradition for Wichita. That’s important.”
On a blanket in front of his family’s car, Jacen Chavez ate popcorn. The concession stand, he said, is one of the highlights of going to the drive-in.
Since admission is relatively cheap, “you can spend your money on good stuff, like candy and snacks,” said Jacen, 7.
“That’s not it,” his 9-year-old sister Aarynn interrupted. “It’s because it’s fun.”
Showtimes at the Starlite
For more information about what movies are playing at the Starlite Drive-In, and for pricing information, visit www.starlitefun.com.