BROOKVILLE — The Moonlite Drive In has been a familiar part of Brookville’s landscape since 1952. Friends and families have enjoyed watching double features of the latest movies under the stars for generations.
However, the digital age hasn’t been kind to drive in theaters. At one time a booming industry, there are now only three hundred drive in movie theaters left in America. Unable to keep up with technological advances and the costs associated with these upgrades, one by one theaters were forced to darken their formidable screens for good.
Last year, the Moonlite Drive In was nearly doomed to the same fate. Film companies unilaterally decided to switch from producing film for the 35 mm projectors that had been used for over a hundred years to digital film in order to cut their costs. Owner Jim Lipuma was faced with an ultimatum, either come up with the $91,000 needed to buy the new equipment, or close his business.
When word got out about the drive in’s dilemma, Lipuma says many people wanted to help. But the theater owner, despite being moved by each offer, had intentionally avoided public fundraising. When people tried to give him money, Lipuma told them, “All I want you to do, I want you to come to the Moonlite Drive In, I want you to eat here and I want you to bring your friends next time. And if you do that, you will help us make the money the way we need to make the money.”
Lipuma recalled how, though he had tried to set money aside to prepare for the switch, he didn’t anticipate it happening so soon. As the deadline approached, they were coming up short. “We were close, but we weren’t there,” he said. “And we were at the cut off.” He goes on to describe how, at the final hour, The Moonlight Drive In was saved by a small miracle. “As I like to say, we had a little angel come out of the woodwork, who wishes not to be named and said, ‘Here my father was in the drive in business at one point when we were young and I want to do this to help you get over the top. So they lent us the money to make it over top. So, it was sweet. It was just one of those things that you just didn’t expect.” Lipuma says he ordered the projector the following week, and the show was able to go on.
Lipuma, who has been in this business for 38 years when he started out working the concession stand at the Greater Pittsburgh Drive In Theater (which was closed and turned into a Walmart), admitted that the shift to digital projectors has ultimately provided for a better movie-going experience.
First of all, the drive in has switched from analogue sound to digital surround sound, which is much higher quality. Another benefit is that digital film doesn’t undergo the wear and tear like film reels did. This means no lines, spots or breaks in the picture.
Lastly, the digital film and projector have made some new opportunities possible for the Moonlite. For example, on May 21st, Lipuma has worked in collaboration with the Brookville Area Ministerium Association to show a faith-based movie to the public for free. The film is called “Saving Faith” and stars Amy Grant. Interestingly, the film is about a movie theater that is in danger of closing. The owner, a young man, doesn’t know how he is going to keep his business afloat. If you’ve been following recent events at The Moonlite, you may have an idea how this one ends.
Lipuma says it’s important to him to offer events like these for a public that has been so vital in keeping his business alive. Last October, he partnered with the Brookville Area School District to offer a free movie and popcorn for the students. He also offered a free showing of “The Polar Express” on Black Friday weekend. “It’s nice to give back sometimes,” he explained. “You ask people to support you all the time, so it’s nice to give back and say, ‘Hey, we’ll take care of it.’”
Another way that Lipuma demonstrates his commitment to his patrons is keeping the prices of admission low, in most cases less than half of what most indoor theaters charge. Despite the reality of running a seasonal business with costs that he incurs year-round (heating, insurance, taxes, etc.) Lipuma says he would rather keep the cost of admission low. Raising prices would put more money in the pocket of big film companies, since they collect a significant percentage of ticket prices. Where The Moonlight really makes its money is food.
“You drive by McDonald’s, it says over a billion people served,” Lipuma noted. “I served about 30 cheeseburgers a night. I can’t compete with that. But if you don’t eat here, we don’t survive.”
Still, Lipuma hopes the people will continue to come from all over to support The Moonlite Drive In. It remains as not just a place for families and friends to have a good time, but it’s also a relic of the past. As Lipuma puts it, “I always tell people, we don’t want to lose this little piece of Americana because Americana just continues to disappear every day.”