POWELL, Wyo. — The autumn moon has taken its seat low in the evening sky as the cars arrive at Wyoming's last drive-in theater. Pokey Heny stands ready to indulge in another night of small-town sociability.
At 52, the owner of the American Dream Drive-in leans out the snack bar door to collect a $15 per-vehicle entry fee. She greets people by their first names, telling a 4-year-old girl she likes her stuffed hippo, named Martha. Then a single mother and daughter roll up in an aging pickup. Heny lets them in for 10 bucks.
Then she looks out toward the big screen looming in the twilight and sees families sprawled on car hoods, in lawn chairs and the beds of backed-in trucks — dogs crouched between toddlers buried under woolen blankets. And she smiles, knowing she's helping to preserve a vital ritual in this a ranching town of 6,000 residents near the Montana border.
The venture first opened in 1949 as Wyoming's first drive-in. Today business plays out like a Saturday night thriller: the future in doubt as Heny battles studios seeking to increase profits and drive-ins' dwindling popularity. This year, as Hollywood switches to a digital format, replacing standard 35-millimeter prints at drive-ins countrywide, she faced a reel dilemma — go modern or go dark.
The digital projector cost $80,000, what she paid for the place in 2004, but against her husband's advice, she borrowed the money this year and took the plunge. At the first showing, the boxy new machine malfunctioned, forcing her to tell 75 carloads of customers there would be no show that night.
But Heny sticks by her gamble. "I'm investing in the town's future," she says. "So many businesses have closed, the bowling alley and video store. If I let this one go, it wasn't ever coming back."
Drive-ins have been failing for years, with 90% closing since their 1950s apex, their numbers tumbling from a high of 4,063 to just 350 this year, according to Kipp Sherer, co-founder of Drive-ins.com. Today, Alaska, Delaware and Louisiana have no drive-ins whatsoever. Maryland, Rhode Island and Mississippi each have one. Wyoming once had 30, like the Sunset, Motorview and the Starlight, all of which are gone.
"For many rural communities, it's the last form of communal entertainment, where families can watch a movie and be themselves," Sherer said. "It's a nightlong outing that doesn't break the bank."
Heny wants to keep it that way. Despite updating to digital, she tries to keep everything else immersed in yesterday, maintaining the nostalgic atmosphere of her own childhood. She plays only family fare — no slasher flicks — because she doesn't want passing motorists to see people getting decapitated on screen.
At the 7:15 p.m. start time for "Monsters University," a crowd waits outside a snack bar decorated with old 45s and selling such retro candy as Junior Mints, Dots and Hot Tamales, along with dill pickles on a stick. There's bug spray for the season's last hungry mosquitoes, and Heny soon plans to reprise those grainy intermission ads with the dancing hot dogs and popcorn boxes singing, "Let's all go the lobby …"
Suddenly, the PA system springs to life on 1940s speakers that stand next to parking spaces like metal carhops. Two girls in small voices instruct patrons to tune to FM station 95.1 for sound. Some nights, bands of 6-year-olds cluster outside the projector shack, making shadow puppets over the opening credits. "Just kids being kids," Heny says.
The nation's first open-air movie theater was in Camden, N.J., in 1933, when Richard Hollingshead placed a Kodak projector on his car hood to transmit "Wives Beware," a comedy about a philandering car salesman. The images flickered on a screen nailed to two trees, with a radio to provide sound.
Years later, Wyoming residents Paul and Winnie McCalmon opened Paul's Drive-in on a former hayfield, offering extras like Shetland pony rides and boats in a small pond. The year after a storm blew down the screen in 1955, the drive-in returned with the twin bill "The Devil on Wheels" and "Tumbleweed Trail." The place charged 50 cents for adults and 9 cents for children, advertising "bottles warmed free for the baby."
In the 1970s, the newly named Vali Drive-in was the center of Powell's teen social life. "The girls came here because this is where the boys were," said Heny's sister Diana Fulton, who worked the concession stand as a youth and now helps Heny run the business. "I met guys — that's why I worked here. You got to see who came together and who left together."
In 2004, new owner Heny knew what to call the place — The American Dream Drive-In. "It really is the American dream to be your own boss," she said. "And there aren't that many female small-business owners in Wyoming." Most weekends she clears $3,000, including concessions.
She's already made some memories here: Once a rancher's runaway steer charged through the drive-in's wooden outer wall. She considered running an ad saying, "It's No Bull: We're the Best Show in Town," but in the end stuck with her standby: "Rain or Snow: We Still Show."
Heny already misses the old celluloid days, with reams of film footage running between the two mammoth projector reels. She misses that acrid smell when the 1949-model contraption stuck and the plastic film loop smoked and melted on the big screen, reminding her of the opening fiery credits of the old TV show "Bonanza."
But she knows the show — and the town — must go on. As "Monsters University" ends, the departing car lights casting beams into the dark, Heny sweeps up stray popcorn as teen employee Jake Magill scours for cars with dead batteries in need of a jump. He's often awakened cuddling couples, interrupted neckers and broken up family fights.
Magill's brother Drew did the job for years and his younger brother Nate waits in line. "I tell my boys, 'Soak it in,'" said their father, Andy. "Not every kid gets to work the projector at the drive-in. This isn't the 1950s."
Well, for Heny it still is.
Like most nights, she's the last to leave, switching off the marquee out by the mural of the American flag. For a moment, she stands there, watching the lights dim on Wyoming's last drive-in picture show.