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August 01. 2013 11:26PM

Move to digital forcing decision

Will curtain drop on Northfield Drive-In?


Hinsdale's Northfield Drive-In may have to close after 65 years of providing summer entertainment, due to the cost of going digital. (Courtesy)

The one hundred year old technology at the Northfield Drive-In still projects a great movie, but because film will soon no longer be available for new releases the drive-in must go digital or go dark. courtesy of Gabriel Shakour The one hundred year old technology at the Northfield Drive-In still projects a great movie, but because film will soon no longer be available for new releases the drive-in must go digital or go dark. courtesy of Gabriel Shakour 35-milimeter film hangs from the wall in the Northfield Drive-In projection room. (Courtesy of Gabriel Shakour)

HINSDALE — Northfield Drive-In owner Mitchell Shakour has been facing this decision for years, but Thursday said he still hasn't decided. Should his lifelong family business go digital or go dark?

He and his family plan to make the decision and announce to moviegoers on Saturday whether or not this is their last summer, which is also the 65th anniversary of the Northfield Drive-In.

The drive-in's 70-year-old projector never even upgraded to light bulbs. It is the original technology invented by Thomas Edison, Shakour said, and still uses a flame.

The antique projector belongs in the Smithsonian Institute, Shakour said, but it continues to project film with great quality.

"But because movie companies are not making any more film we are forced to go digital or go dark," Shakour said.

It's an emotional decision, he said.

Shakour comes from a family of drive-in theater owners.

He was born in Keene in August 1953, and the April before that his parents purchased the Keene Drive-In.

Then, in 1967, his parents bought Hinsdale's Northfield Drive-In and the family ran both until the Keene Drive-In closed in 1985. The Northfield Drive-In remained open and he eventually took over the family business.

Several members of his extended family also owned drive-ins throughout New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont, he said.While most people look back on childhood summers full of camping trips and days at the beach, Shakour said he spent his summer days growing up at a drive-in."Literally my whole life has been drive-ins," he said. "It kind of gets into your blood."

As drive-in theaters dwindled from the American landscape, the Northfield had a brief moment in the spotlight, making a cameo appearance in the 1999 film The Cider House Rules.Owning a drive-in theater, though, is not a money maker, he said. He is also the publisher of the Monadnock Shopper News and owns rental property. His wife, Carla Folkert, is a veterinarian."You cannot live on the income from a drive-in," he said.

Shakour's children, 18-year-old Gabriel and 16-year-old Lili, also work summers at the drive-in and Folkert is probably the only veterinarian/drive-in theater/snack bar manager in the county, Shakour said.

The family spends its summers together running the drive-in and they love it, he said, but is it time to say goodbye?

"We really don't know. We've been discussing it for months," Shakour said. "A lot of drive-ins are going out of business and they are going to be pulling the plug."

Small movie theater owners are also facing the 'go digital or go dark' unspoken mandate from Hollywood, but the cost for drive-in theaters run from $100,000 to $150,000 for the conversion, which is about 2½ times the cost for movie theaters.

"For smaller drive-ins it's a clear-cut decision," they are closing, Shakour said.

There are a few large drive-ins around the country that can afford it, but the Northfield falls in the middle, not small but not big.

"It was a drive-in business and now we'd be lucky in the future to pull minimum wage. It's not as lucrative as it used to be," he said.

It doesn't seem like a smart financial decision to stay open, he said. But he loves the drive-in and knows the community loves it, too.

"There is a certain iconic value, nostalgia, call it a yearning for a different time," Shakour said. "Parents remember being brought to drive-ins when they were kids and they want to bring their kids. We feel it's a community service as well as a business."

While other theaters and drive-ins have raised money to go digital using campaigns and online fundraising websites, Shakour said he has been hesitant about asking the community to fund the business expense.

Shakour said he is uncomfortable asking people for money, and by doing so competing with non-profits that feed and shelter the poor.

Maybe he's too proud, he said.

There would also be new maintenance costs for digital equipment. The projection room would have to be heated during the winter and cooled during the summer to stay between 55 and 80 degrees, he said.

In addition, the projection room electrical system would have to be upgraded and the building would also have to be insulated.

Shakour gave himself a deadline of Saturday to make the final decision.

It's also a celebration of the 65th anniversary of the drive-in, which opened Aug. 3 1948.

In honor of the anniversary there will also be three movies this weekend instead of two, The Smurfs 2, The Wolverine, and Grown Ups 2.

During intermission, Shakour said the decision will be announced on the microphone as well as on the drive-in's Facebook page.

The nearly 60-year-old Shakour said he is torn. While it might be nice to take a summer vacation for once, he would miss the drive-in dearly.

"My wife says, 'If we shut down the drive-in, we're going to have to put you into therapy or into a support group,'" he said.

mpierce@newtote.com


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