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Dark days at Sunset Drive-in, slowed by COVID-19 worries

In this Nov. 7, 2020, photo, Margaret Koper, of Waterford Township, Pa., and her husband Dennis Koper, owners of the Sunset Drive-In and Flea Market stand outside the theater. The couple has owned the drive-in since 1986. They didn't simply sit still waiting for COVID-19 to disappear and for crowds to return. Like many of the nation's other drive-ins, they sought out alternative programming. (Jack Hanrahan/Erie Times-News via AP)

WATERFORD (AP) — The big screen has gone dark for the season at Sunset Drive-in in Waterford Township. The last of the vendors at the weekly flea market staged at the theater have folded up their card tables and packed away their wares.

Drive-in theaters, down from a high of about 4,000 in the late 1950s to an estimated 321 today, according to www.DriveInMovie.com, have long been described as a dying breed.

But 70-year-old co-owner Dennis Koper, who has been working at the drive-in since 1968, and owned it since1986 with his wife, 68-year-old Margaret Koper, said 2020 presented challenges on a different scale.

It was the summer of COVID-19, and a season without a blockbuster. Most studios sat on their big movies that would otherwise have been released.

Margaret Koper figures the most popular movies at Sunset Drive-In this year were “Hocus Pocus,” made in 1994, and “Jaws,” first released to theaters in 1975.

A lack of box office buzz wasn’t the only challenge. The opening date of the Sunset Drive-In — which they believe to be the oldest continuously operating drive-in in the country — was delayed by the coronavirus. And for a while it looked like the theater’s snack bar would not open.

Even after that issue was resolved, the season will be remembered for its challenges.

“It was a lousy year, let’s put it that way,” Dennis Koper said. “We were down quite a bit this year because of everything.”

In the drive-in theater business, some years are helped or hurt by the weather. Sometimes it’s the movies themselves that shape fortunes.

“It was the worst,” Dennis Koper said of 2020. “It was the worst we ever had.”

They didn’t simply sit still waiting for COVID-19 to disappear and for crowds to return. Like many of the nation’s other drive-ins, they sought out alternative programming.

Drive-ins across the country, including Sunset, sold tickets in June to a Garth Brooks concert produced exclusively for drive-in theaters. Nationwide, tickets were sold to admit more than 50,000 cars.

The concert did well at Sunset, as did another by Metallica, Dennis Koper said.

In a year when high schools throughout the country saw their normal graduation routines disrupted, Sunset Drive-In served as a site for screening recorded graduation ceremonies for General McClane, Fort LeBoeuf and North East high schools.

The Kopers couldn’t afford to take a year off.

Dennis Koper said it was just four or five years ago that they invested more than $200,000 to replace their old projection equipment with new digital equipment.

“It hurt,” Dennis Koper said. “We are still making payments on that equipment. It’s worse than the mortgage payment was.”

As challenging as the season was, Dennis Koper acknowledges that it could have been worse if they had been prevented from opening their snack bar.

Movie studios typically collect 70% of ticket sales, although it was a bit lower this year for second-run shows. That makes sales of hot dogs, popcorn and drinks an essential part of the revenue stream.

Permission to open the snack bar and restrooms didn’t come until the last minute.

The changing rules and requirements didn’t always make sense, Koper said. At one point, he was told he could open the theater, but not the restroom. That was later changed with a guard who had to be posted at the restroom and that only one person was allowed inside at a time.

“When I went into Walmart you could go into their restroom and there would be five or six people. Why not for me?” Koper said.

Opening the snack bar also presented challenges. Koper said he learned on a Wednesday that they could open if they could present the Erie County Department of Health with a certified water test by Friday, the day they planned to open the drive-in.

The Kopers met their deadline by just a few hours.

But it wasn’t business as usual.

“We had to submit a plan of how we could get people in one door (of the snack bar) and out another door,” Koper said. “A lot of people were upset about that.”

Others seemed reluctant to venture out.

“It was slow because people were skeptical about coming,” Koper said.

To the couple’s way of thinking, the drive-in was a relatively safe place to be, even for those who left the comfort of the car, lawn chair or blanket to make a snack run.

“In a (conventional) movie theater you have a better chance of catching the virus,” Koper said. “Out here, your chances of catching it are slim to none.”

One thing didn’t change in 2020. The Kopers said they still enjoyed talking with people, some of them from outside the area, who relished the visit to one of the last American drive-in theaters.

That’s why they expect to be back next season.

Dennis Koper said they’ll stick to their customary roles. She will be taking money at the ticket stand and setting up the snack bar. Dennis Koper said he will keep the grounds clean and run the projection equipment.

“We will be back,” Koper said. “I am expecting things to be back to normal.”

Besides, he said. “We have to keep working it. It’s something us old folks have to do.”

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