Family keeps Starlite Drive-in going for 59th year

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. - As soon as you walk up to the concession stand, you can hear him. It's about 11:15 p.m. and the night's first feature at the Starlite Drive-In has just ended, but Mark Freeman's second act has just begun.

"Pickle pop!"

Some people in line laugh. Others aren't sure what pickle pops are or why the man in the hat behind the counter feels the need to yell about them.

"Do you like pickles?" he says to the customer across from him. She does. "Pickle pop on me!" Freeman hollers down to his son Ryan at the cash register before ringing a cowbell. "The first bite's intense. The second bite's a little bit interesting, but the third bite, it's love."

Freeman bought the Starlite last March and has recruited his family and friends to keep the Monroe County landmark in operation for a 59th year. It's not yet certain, however, whether it will be open for a 60th year.

Up to 90 percent of the ticket price can go to the movie company, so most of the drive-in's profits have to come from concession sales. That's why when he saw a group of people setting up tables for their own mini buffet the first weekend of the season, Freeman thought he had made a mistake.

Then there's the inevitable transition from film to digital projection.

Hollywood is ending distribution of 35-millimeter film, and Freeman estimates upgrading to digital will cost about $75,000. At the end of July, he'll have to look at the numbers and make a hard decision.

In the meantime, he's doing everything he can to keep the drive-in profitable and a smile on his face.

"Get `er done, but have fun," he told The Herald-Times (http://bit.ly/1nAsGuj ).

At about 5:30 p.m. the sun was still high above the trees. The only vehicles at the drive-in belonged to a couple of friends setting up the concession stand and Freeman's son Logan, who was picking up trash.

"We give every car a trash bag when they come in," Logan said. "The first couple weekends we didn't. It was awful."

The past three months have been full of learning experiences like that for the Freemans.

"I didn't know nothing about nothing," Mark Freeman said shortly after he got to the drive-in last weekend.

He had just gotten back from picking up a movie that was mistakenly delivered to a theater in Martinsville. Standing beside his SUV in a gray tank top with the box of movie reels at his feet, he explained how if he wants a new movie, he has to keep it for two weeks. That's if it's available.

He wanted the new Tom Cruise flick "Edge of Tomorrow" but he was told 35-millimeter prints don't exist. He wants the latest "Transformers" movie, but there are only 50 copies in the U.S. on 35-millimeter film. He found a way to get one, though, just like he found a way to increase concession sales.

"When I got into the drive-in business, I didn't know I was getting into the restaurant business," he said.

Logan said he doesn't want to ban outside food; he remembers bringing food in when they came to the drive-in years ago. They just want to educate the public about what it will take to keep the drive-in going. Their customers let them know what it would take to get them to do that.

"If you want the Starlite to stay open, you gotta buy concessions," Mark Freeman said. "They said, `You've gotta have stuff we want."'

As he explained this, Tommy Smith, the kitchen manager at Macri's at The Depot, arrived. He brought metal containers with his marinated Smith kabobs and a cooler full of corn on the cob to the grill behind the concession stand. A little while later, a black Ford Taurus pulled in.

"Looks like Swing-In Pizza is here," Freeman said.

The previous weekend, 44 pizzas were delivered to cars. On this particular night, he's got 20 coming in.

"It's really a crap shoot on how many pizzas to order," Freeman said. "The easy way is to back up the Tombstone truck and pull out frozen pizzas. But that's not how we want to do it."

As the sun moved closer to the tree line, the smell of buttered popcorn wafted through the air. The first couple cars crunched the gravel beneath their tires as they slowly rolled up to the towering white screen.

"Here we go," Freeman said. "It's officially started."

Logan and a friend manned the newly-remodeled ticket booth. When Mark came over, windows rolled down and hands poked out to wave.

"What's up, girlfriend?" he said to the occupant of one car. "I remember when you were just 7 years old."

It wasn't long before he started ribbing people.

"We charge double for debit cards," he said with a smile.

After riling up the customers in line, Mark hopped on his John Deere Gator and took a tour around the lot. He drove to the green space between the front row of cars and the screen, where kids were playing catch. He stopped by a group of young kids on a blanket and armed with butterfly

nets. A man from a few rows back was flying a remote controlled helicopter. Mark told the kids it was a snipe and asked if they could catch it with their nets.

"If everybody'll get an ear of corn, the snipe'll come right at ya," he said.

He drove over to the man with the remote and asked him to fly the copter by the kids again.

As the sunlight began to fade, Kati Oard was hard at work in the projection room. The film that Mark picked up from Martinsville comes in several reels, with about 20 minutes of the movie on each. Oard spliced them together using a precision taping method.

Most of the time, she goes about her work unnoticed. Most of the time.

"I become quite on display if something does break down," she said. "Which, it doesn't matter how good of a projectionist you are, it's going to happen eventually."

She's been running the projector at Starlite for about three years, but the drive-in has been a part of her family for much longer. She said her dad used to go there, and she went as a teenager.

"I hope it's still around for my son to go here," she said. "Hopefully, with the Freemans being a local family and having the spirit they do, it will be."

Once the sun had disappeared behind the trees, the hum of the projector filled the room as the first images of the evening appeared on the monstrous screen at the edge of the woods.

Behind the concession stand, Freeman sat down on a dusty black chair and breathed a sigh of relief. His oldest son, Reece, took a break from manning the popcorn machine to joke and tell stories with his dad. They talked with Smith about high school wrestling and laughed, but Mark warned them not to get too loud; he's had people complain.

"One guy," Reece said.

"And three emails," Mark said.

Before long the credits for the first movie started rolling.

"Here we go," Reece said. "Round two."

As the concession stand filled with people during intermission, Mark was hawking his latest novelty, Bob's Pickle Pops. They're similar to Fla-Vor-Ice!, but instead of flavors like grape, strawberry and tropical punch, they have the salty, sour taste of a pickle.

Freeman told a customer they were developed for the Philadelphia Eagles to keep them from cramping up.

"They helped the Philadelphia Eagles win the ..." He paused. "They won the ..." He looked at the other people behind the counter and then back at the customer. "The game! They won the game."

After the second movie started, Mark sat at a table on the patio he had built in front of the concession stand. As the crowd got lost in the picture on the screen, he dreamed of what the drive-in could be after a digital conversion.

He talked about live-streaming football games and concerts. He imagined IU baseball fans packing in to see the Hoosiers in Omaha playing in the College World Series. He acknowledged it might be a little far-fetched, but considered for a moment what it would be like if John Mellencamp put on a concert at the drive-in while it was streamed live to other drive-ins across the country.

"He gets to do a national concert and be home by midnight," Freeman said. "Whatever we do, I think for drive-ins to survive, the model has to change."

Before his head got too far in the clouds, a customer asked if the drive-in still jumps people's cars at the end of the night. Starlite offers handheld radios to tune into the station broadcasting sound for the movies, but most people still prefer to use their car stereo systems, which inevitably kills a few batteries.

As the final credits moved up the screen, Freeman put his car battery charger in the bed of the Gator and helped people get home.

In one car, a mother and daughter were sleeping. The temperature had fallen about 30 degrees since the sun went down, and their car windows had been rolled up to keep them warm. Freeman shined a light into the vehicle and waved with a smile as the mother opened her eyes.

Freeman's daughter, Lacee, had the same idea. She had fallen asleep in a pile of blankets on the floor in the office.

Freeman's wife, Yvonne, yawned as she cleaned up the kitchen. She enjoys the new family business, but not the late nights.

"It would be all right if we didn't have full-time jobs," she said. "But it does bring our family together. And we get a lot of thank yous."

At the trash bin, Mark and his son Ryan were throwing away the trash bags that were handed out earlier in the evening. The movie screen had gone dark. The only sources of light were the moon and the headlamps of the last car as it headed toward Old Ind. 37. Freeman waved goodbye.

"Come back and see us."

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Information from: The Herald Times, http://www.heraldtimesonline.com

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