Thinking Big-Screen

Jim Goble is obsessed with drive-ins, with what he calls "the atmosphere of the huge screen looming up out of the ground, looking at a wall of cars parked out there, even the gravel crunching under your feet."

So obsessed, in fact, that at the age of 47, he was willing to clean out toilets just to get back in the drive-in business.

Last summer, Goble, who already owned his own business, took an entry-level job at Cinderella City Drive-In, doing the kind of work he hadn't done since working Westminster's North Drive-In as a teen in the early Sixties.

"It was a little strange," he says. "I've owned my own business for 24 years, and I have 23 employees working under me there. And I came out here and worked for minimum wage all summer. Plunging toilets, cleaning up bathroom messes, the whole bit."

Now he's moved beyond grunt work. Last March, after United Artists Theaters pulled out of managing the Cinderella City Drive-In, Goble and a trio of other drive-in-ophiles took over.

Goble's journey began a few years ago, when he realized the local drive-ins were disappearing. (The East 70 in Aurora and the North Star in Thornton both closed in the fall of 1994.) He went to Cinderella City to photograph it for posterity and soon befriended 29-year-old Scott Zimmerman, who grew up working there and dreaming of movies by starlight. Goble owns several hundred photographs of drive-ins from around the country, but Zimmerman owns more than a thousand, and he even ran a small drive-in in western Kentucky for five years before the humidity drove him away.

When it came to drive-in equipment, Zimmerman was buying "anything he could get and just storing it away," says Jeff Kohler, manager of the Cinderella City theater since 1991. "He was always running around doing that sort of thing. Everybody thought he was a nut."

Together Goble and Zimmerman spent several months in 1994 and 1995 searching the western U.S. for a drive-in to buy or build. Passing on Pahrump, Nevada, they wound up last spring in Yuma, Arizona, where they almost built a theater on the outskirts of town. But locals, mostly farmers, complained, and they withdrew.

The pair returned home to Denver last June, where Goble joined with Kohler, 35, and Ken Oborn, 33, (who's worked at Cinderella City since 1983) to pursue management of the drive-in once rumors circulated that United Artists wanted out. Zimmerman eventually opted to invest his money in a Kiddieland amusement park for kids that the foursome hope will be installed before July 4.

"It doesn't have a lot of character to it right now," Zimmerman says of the drive-in--not like the Gratiot in Detroit or the Kallet in New York, he says, with their booming neon signs and tiered waterfalls running behind the screen. Cinderella City "was built to serve its purpose, and that was all."

Whatever character the drive-in has, the new managers are eager to build on it. They're busy fixing up the place--repainting the movie screens, landscaping the lots, renovating the box office and trying to install the forthcoming kiddie rides, a process that has been delayed by power lines that stretch directly above the intended site. Collectively, they've invested about $100,000.

By day, the drive-in is a humpy graveyard of gravel. Speaker poles sunk deep in the ground and bent unnaturally, wires askew, seem to mark those automobiles now vanished and the teens who made out in them.

But there is flickering life here, on two 88-by-45-foot screens. As the last light fades out of a cobalt sky, Tom Cruise and Whoopi Goldberg are beamed out 600 feet by huge projectors, their images lit by 4,500-watt bulbs, their voices bursting through car radios on FM.

Drive-ins aren't yet extinct in this country, but as a cultural signpost, they might as well be. From a total of more than 4,000 screens in the late Fifties, the number dwindled to 2,700 in the mid-Eighties and to fewer than 900 today, while the number of indoor screens has steadily climbed to nearly 27,000.

The remaining drive-ins nationwide still do good business; the large drop in the number of theaters had mostly to do with increasing land values that made selling out to developers too lucrative to pass up.

"My understanding is drive-ins are standing room only these days," says Jim Kozak, communications director for the National Association of Theater Owners. "If the population base moves out to where the facility is, you're going to get better business."

At their peak, eighteen drive-ins dotted metro Denver. Most were turned into shopping centers. Four remain standing today, and only three are open for business. The 900-car twin-screen theater at Cinderella City was built in 1973, shortly after Platte Properties acquired the land, and was leased to a variety of companies before United Artists took over in 1988. United Artists vice-president William Quigley won't comment on how the theater fared financially during UA's tenure, and neither will the current managers, who say only that business has been stable over the years.

Bruce Leiman, one of the owners of Platte Properties, says the land was "bought with the intention of speculation" and that "somewhere down the road it would be replaced." In fact, last spring, Leiman says, "we had an opportunity to do that. Someone wanted to join us and do an industrial project. The numbers looked pretty impressive, but there was more risk, and we basically decided to wait."

While Platte was content to hang in there--it enjoys a healthy percentage of the theater's box-office and concession business--United Artists hinted last summer that it wanted to move on. A large part of the problem, say the current managers, was an overtaxed sewage system.

"UA is very much into advancing new things," says ex-UA employee Kohler. "Ideally, they want out of the small markets. They don't want to run anything but multiplexes.

"So here they are, with only one year left on their lease, looking at having to pay $30,000 to $40,000 to put in a new sewage system."

Quigley (the same Quigley of the infamous Evergreen neighborhood feud of a year ago) says the move "was an economic decision. The landlord had an option to terminate, and he did. The septic system was part of our concern, but essentially they said they had a better deal, and we said fine." UA has one drive-in theater left, on Long Island, and the company has been trying to turn that one into an indoor multiplex for years.

Goble and the others, however, saw an opportunity at Cinderella City. Kohler was at a point where "I didn't want to just manage a theater--not a lot of future in it. But I could see a future in ownership." And Zimmerman and Goble, following their foray into Arizona, had tried to lease the East 70 Drive-In on East Colfax in Aurora (where two cashiers had been brutally stabbed in August 1994), but zoning wrangles with the city ruined their plans.

So began several months of negotiations between Platte, the foursome and UA. By March the new managers had signed a five-year lease, sunk $25,000 into repairing the sewage system, and were on their way. Leiman says it's unlikely Platte will cut the lease short. Weekends still sell out, and from the roof Oborn says you can often see the taillights of cars backed up on the Route 285 exit that leads to the theater. Weeknights are about half full.

"We do plan to be here awhile," Oborn says. "Even if this one did get shut down, we would find land and get one put up. Drive-ins have closed down for one reason or another, mostly land. But there'll always be a few. And maybe that makes it more special.