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Editor's Note - Save the drive-in

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By Tom McDonald

Seems that for the past few years there’s been concern about how much longer the Fort Union Drive-In Theater will be able to remain open. And yet, year in and year out, owner Jeanna DiLucchio manages to produce another season of good movies starting on or near the Memorial Day weekend.

Each year, however, it gets more and more challenging, because the movie industry is moving away from the 35 mm celluloid films that Fort Union depends on. In fact, according to DiLucchio, the industry has set 2013 as a cutoff year for such films. Instead, they’re going digital.

Recently my daughter Maya told me about a couple of high school seniors in town — Robertson’s Pat Herrera and West student Angel Ramos — who want to help save the drive-in. (Disclosure: Pat is Maya’s boyfriend these days)

Pat told me that he and Angel think a lot of other young people would step up to help as well, if given the chance.

I’m certain they’re right. The drive-in is important to youths in this town. Not surprisingly, they want to see it remain open, and to their credit, they’re willing to help out how they can.

Unfortunately, however, it will take a lot more than that. DiLucchio needs some big money to ensure that it’s operating for years into the future. To upgrade the drive-in to streaming digital — which will require a new, climate-controlled, dust-free and air-tight projection room — will cost about $80,000.

And there’s more. DiLucchio doesn’t own the land — she leases it from Gilbert Pino — so to secure a long-term future for the drive-in, purchasing the seven acres that it sits on should be considered. Throw that into the equation, along with some other incidental expenses, and DiLucchio says it’ll all cost in the neighborhood of $400,000. That’s not something DiLucchio has.

Obviously, she needs an investor or a partner, or maybe even a buyer, to give the drive-in a future.

For DiLucchio, this isn’t just a business venture. Like so many in Las Vegas, the drive-in is much more. It’s a great source of entertainment and socializing during the summer months, with its double features that start with a good family film at dusk then something a little racier for older kids and adults well after dark. It’s a family-friendly atmosphere and it has important historical value in a town that treasures its past. Plus, there’s the nostalgic and romantic value that comes with one of the relatively few drive-ins still operating around the nation these days.

What’s more, it has a significant economic impact on Las Vegas. DiLucchio says it regularly attracts people from other parts of New Mexico (the state only has two drive-ins left, with the other way down south at Carlsbad) and from out of state. She also says that it has grown more popular in recent years, with gross receipts continuing to increase despite a tough economy.

All that for just $12 a carload!

• • •

“Honestly, I don’t know,” DiLucchio replied when I asked her if it was closing this year. “We have to go digital. Maybe we can get through 2013 but not much longer after that.”

“This is not like a get-rich type business ... we’re only open five months out of the year,” she said.

Part of the challenge is that DiLucchio works hard to bring new releases to the drive-in, and as 35-mm film fades into oblivion it’s getting more difficult to obtain them. Plus, the new releases cost more.

“I’m trying to have a first-run theater on a second-run budget,”  she said with a laugh.

DiLucchio has spoken with Chamber of Commerce members and others about her plight, and received a supportive response, but there’s been no real solution to surface yet. Her preference would be to see the community somehow take it over. “I guess I’m kind of waiting,” she said.

Perhaps the community can save the theater. Maybe it’s time we actively pursue a solution.

DiLucchio has been running the drive-in since 1992. It’s been a labor of love for her.

Meanwhile, Las Vegas has had its own love affair with the drive-in. It’s where youths hang out, boys and girls play, families bond and Hollywood actually facilitates some good old-fashioned community values.

It would be a major loss if the drive-in were to close. I’m with those who say, let’s not let that happen.

Tom McDonald is editor and publisher of the Optic. He may be reached at 505-425-6796, ext. 237, or tmcdonald@lasvegasoptic.com.