SKOWHEGAN — He did it.

Don Brown, owner of the Skowhegan Drive-In Theater on U.S. Route 201, has gone digital, projecting the outdoor theater built in 1954 into the modern world, complete with Dory the friendly-but-forgetful blue tang fish.

It almost didn’t happen, Brown said Saturday.

Motion picture studios are converting to digital production, and that means that older theaters such as the Skowhegan Drive-In need to replace their 35 mm film projection equipment with new digital equipment.

“I think the drive-in is a very important aspect of the cultural life of the community that spans generations,” Brown said. “That’s what makes it so unique. It meant something to people back in the ’50s, and even today in the 21st century, it still means something to families who are coming here with young children and who have memories that will last a lifetime.”

Two years ago, on the 60th anniversary of the opening of the drive-in, Brown, 53, was looking down the barrel of a $40,000 investment in new equipment and modifications or he would be forced to close. With donations from the community, including a Stephen King marathon of scary movies and a lot of his own savings, Brown finally took delivery of the new projector.

Hoping to open in May with a 35 mm print of “Captain America: Civil War,” Brown got the bad news — Walt Disney Studios was distributing movies only in the new digital format. No more 35 mm.

He opened for the season June 3 with “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows” in 35 mm, but the die was cast. Digital was here to stay.

“We have both the 35 and the digital capability,” he said. “I love running the 35 projectors, and I was not about to give that up.”

The theater’s digital debut occurred on Father’s Day weekend, with Disney’s “Finding Dory.”

“The drive-in almost didn’t open this year,” Brown said. “It took so long to acquire the digital projector and get everything in order for it to be installed and shipped from California that we were at a point in the season where if it had gone any further, we might not have a viable season as a fixture in the community, and it would have been a loss all around.

“The drive-in will be around in Skowhegan now for the digital age.”

The drive-in theater has a capacity of 340 to 350 cars, set old-fashioned-style in semicircles with a standing pipe that once held the audio speakers. Sound for the movies now comes over the car’s FM radio at 88.3 on the dial.

The movie screen is 80 feet by 42 feet and stands about 60 feet high. A large concession stand offers a variety of food and beverages.

Movies cost $8 for adults and $4 per child, so a family of five can see a double feature — comfy in their PJs if they like — for under $30.

“For two movies, you can’t beat it,” he said.

Two years ago an estimated 357 drive-in movie theaters remained in the United States, a steep decline from the 4,000 or 5,000 that gave drive-in theaters entertainment status in the late 1950s.

Brown, who purchased the drive-in in 2012, said that while some movie studios are maintaining and even promoting their 35 mm drive-in movies, Disney studios was not; and without that “crucial product” produced by Disney for families to go out to the drive-in, the summer season under the stars almost was lost.

“Disney this year, with ‘Finding Dory,’ ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass,’ ‘(The) Jungle Book’ and ‘Zootopia,’ they really had a very strong slate of releases to have people come in to see them at the drive-in,” Brown said.

Showtime is about 8:35 p.m. and by Maine law, smoking anywhere on site is prohibited, even in the privacy of the family sedan. The drive-in also has a Facebook page.

Brown said he also was the recipient of funding from the town of Skowhegan’s facade program in the amount of about $8,000 to replace the drive-in’s old neon sign that used to hang on U.S. Route 201.

Brown said he loves the simple touch screen of the digital projector, but having been in the drive-in movie business for 30 years, his heart is in the old 35 mm movies that sparked the imaginations of generations of families. He still has two 35 mm projectors that he intends to keep using.

“These are still operational,” he said, fondly tapping the old equipment with his hand. “I still love running the 35.”

The last 35 mm movie to be shown this season at the Skowhegan Drive-In Theater promises to be a good one, he said.

“I think there’s one more feature we’ll have on 35 — “Star Trek Beyond” — in July,” he said. “It will probably be the only other 35, but as long as we can get 35, we’ll continue to run them. It may be obsolete, but it’s still an important part of what the experience of the drive-in was.”

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.