Drive-in Renaissance

John Watzke, the owner of the Ocala Drive-In Theatre, poses for a photo at the theatre on South Pine Avenue south on August 4. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette]
It’s been ten years since John Watzke reopened the landmark Ocala Drive-In Theatre and, in that time, has seen how people continue to gravitate to the nostalgia, even traveling up to two hours to catch a movie in their car.

While he admits the novelty of attending a drive-in show has kept the gates open, after the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year, business has increased with capacity or near capacity showings now the norm. Lockdowns across the country due to the pandemic forced indoor theaters to close. For a time, the drive-in was the only show in town.

When the pandemic hit, what had been a forgotten pastime became once again a practicality for the nation. For a few weeks in early 2020, the Ocala Drive-In was the only theater showing movies in the country.

“There was a three- or four-week period that I was the only theater in the country reporting new releases,” Watzke said. “That was last year, end of March, beginning of April.”

John Watzke talks about the Christie digital projection system for the big screen in the projector room at the theatre on South Pine Avenue on Aug. 4. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette]
At one time, thousands of drive-ins dotted the country. Today the number is just more than 300, according to driveinmovie.com

But the renewed interest in the drive-in continued even after the indoor theaters reopened.

“It [the pandemic] has brought the recognition of drive-ins back,” Watzke said. “This brought the drive-ins back into the limelight when people started realizing, ‘Hey, they still have drive-ins,’ and what a great thing it is—it’s a family outing.”

The Ocala Drive-In opened in 1948 and shut down in 2002 only to reopen a year later before again closing in 2007.

In 2011, Watzke stepped in, renovated the property, updated the equipment and personally handled the day-to-day operation. The work paid off—Watzke said he now recognizes regulars from St. Augustine, Tallahassee, Jacksonville and Daytona who make the commute to enjoy the inexpensive outing. The drive-in charges $6 per adult and $3 per child for two movies. Ticket sales account for only 20% of the revenue, Watzke said. It’s the concession stand that keeps films on the screens.

“It’s a family gathering, okay?” Watzke said. “Family gets together. They come to the drive-in. They’re spending at least four to five hours or more together.”

And if you ask someone about a movie they’ve seen at a drive-in, he says, “they’re going to tell you what drive-in they’ve seen it at, what vehicle they were driving, who was with them—it becomes a memory.’

The snack bar is shown at the Ocala Drive-In Theatre on South Pine Avenue south. The drive-in shows movies seven days a week and is doing very well during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette]
Even before the pandemic, however, Watzke continued to improve the drive-in experience and expand options. They installed FM transmitters to broadcast sound through car stereos instead of through window speakers. They upgraded the projectors, and Watzke also added a second screen.

The drive-in also shows more than movies. They feature concerts—video and real-time. Blake Sheldon, Garth Brookes, Bon Jovi, and Jimmy Buffet have all appeared on the Ocala screen along with Christian artists, For King and Country and Toby Mac. The drive-in has also hosted girl scout events, school award ceremonies and CF graduations.

Whatever the event, the drive-in allows families the chance to come together as a family and that’s what Watzke is all about—the memories.

For Watzke, it’s also a family affair. His father and his grandfather were movie projectionists. His brother, Charlie, operates a theater in Waveland, Mississippi.

“I was raised in the theaters—my family has been, uh, 108 years working in theaters,” he said.

 

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