News That Matters To Antelope County - Your News. Your Way. Every Day!
© Pitzer Digital, LLC
Nestled on the edge of Neligh sits a gateway to the past, and it draws thousands to Antelope County every summer, just as it has for 65 years.
While technology has changed for TK Starlite Drive-In, the nostalgia remains as the Neligh location is one of just three drive-ins left in the entire state. It’s also the oldest drive-in.
“We wanted an adventure,” said Kaila Halpine of Lincoln on a recent night at the drive-in. “I suggested a drive-in theater, and we found this online. We wanted some summer adventures.”
Halpine and friends Mabel Eppler and Jessica Powers drove from Lincoln to watch “Pirates of the Caribbean 3” on the massive outdoor screen. Dozens of theaters in Lincoln were playing the same film, but it was the idea of sitting in lawn chairs with a radio blasting audio from FM 89.9 that led them to a 2½ hour drive for a movie.
Similar curiosity draws new faces every weekend, which keeps a dying pastime thriving in Neligh. Opened in 1952, the TK Starlite Drive-In has changed and adapted, including the addition of a bigger screen after the first one was damaged by storms and a digital projector. However, the original concept stays the same. Families can drive up to their spot and watch the movie from their car or from lawn chairs.
“It’s nice that they have something like this. It feels homely,” Powers said.
The Starlite Drive-In was opened by Walter Bradley, the owner and manager of the New Moon Theater in Neligh. At the peak of its popularity, more than 40 drive-in theaters operated across the state. They made up an approximate 4,100 drive-ins in North America. But competition from cable TV and VCRs set in during 1980s, and the number of drive-ins fell drastically. By 1990, only 600 drive-in theaters remained across the United States. Nebraska saw the effects of this decline, facing a 93 percent closure. Today, only three drive-in theaters still operate in Nebraska: the TK-Starlite, Sandhills Drive-In in Alliance and Sokol Park in Bellevue.
Sheri Neesen, whose family previously owned and operated the drive in theater before it went under its current management, said that getting involved with theaters started at a young age.
"I grew up with theaters. My uncle is the one that bought theaters and got my dad involved in it. My uncle purchased the theater in Schuyler and my dad managed it. We moved their as young kids and ran the theaters with him. From Schuyler, my uncle bought the theaters in West Point, and that is where we spent most of our life."
Neesen said that she never expected to get back into the business after her past with theaters growing up.
"If you had told me in high school that I would get back into theaters, I would have told you 'you were flipping' crazy!'"
Over the years, she said that theaters and projectors have become more technologically advanced, and that how it is done today is nothing like how it was in the past.
"The big change is the projectors. We used to get the films in on reels and they were in cans. We had to piece them together on this big round disk. We had had to take a reel out of the can and put them in the slots on the disk and tape them together. There were sometimes 5-6 reels we had to piece together to have a movie. We had to splice them together with tape and then put them into the machine."
Before the disk was made to hold the reels on, Neesen said two projectors were used, with a single reel on each projector.
"Before we had everything to put together, there were two projectors. You had to put one reel on one projector. A bell would ring 10 minutes before the reel ran out, and you had to have your next one ready on the other projector to flip on."
With the decline in popularity in drive-ins and theaters in general, theaters have had to find ways to cover the costs. The price of access by the film companies to hold screenings of new movies are set prices and are extremely high, and when the public relies on the low ticket prices in order to attend, the drive in is faced with only one option to turn a profit: concession sales.
"You make most of your money on concessions. The film companies will kill you. We seemed to have a large enough volume of people for it to work, but you had to work hard for it."