Medicine Lodge drive-in a return to a different era

Reproduced by permission of The Hutchinson News

Article by Amy Bickel The Hutchinson News

MEDICINE LODGE - Weeds grow into trees in the parking areas. Windstorms and vandalism have damaged the two-story screens. The once spirited playground hasn't seen a child in years, if not decades.

Drive-ins have flickered out in most cities.

Yet just outside the ranching community of Medicine Lodge, they crawl in, one by one, folks in vehicles with the headlights on - snaking their way into the Pageant Drive-In in the summer dusk.

Here, visitors won't find high-tech gadgets or stadium seating. For Barb Lassiter, however, watching a movie under the stars with her family tops everything.

"You can sit back, relax and enjoy an evening," she said from her lawn chair, her husband, Brett, and their two children, Breanna, 14, and Nathan, 13, sitting beside her.

For amid the Gyp Hills prairie, 1950s-style Americana still reigns. Moviegoers see first-run films. Moreover, these days, there's no need for clunky, metal speakers. A movie can be heard by flipping on the vehicle radio.

Drive-ins ruled when Cadillacs were king, when Sandra Dee, Elvis and James Dean ruled the screen. The first U.S. drive-in movie theater opened in 1933. By the 1950s, there were 4,000 drive-ins throughout the country.

Then one by one, they began closing as customers waned. Maybe it was the rising property values, the onset of multiplex theaters or technology changes such as VCRs and video rentals.

Nevertheless, the slumping interest in drive-ins that spanned the 1970s and 1980s - years when thousands of drive-ins across the country went dark - has given way to something of a comeback. While Pageant Drive-in owner Wayne Sill and his son, Mike, probably won't ever see the numbers similar to the theater's heyday, carloads of folks now are cruising in each weekend for the unique experience of watching a movie out in the summertime air.

The Pageant is one of just six drive-in theaters still operating in Kansas, said Marci Penner, executive director of the Kansas Sampler Foundation, a group that promotes Kansas tourism.

Theaters in Dodge City and Wichita remain open. Owners of a drive-in in Kanopolis, however, closed the facility at least through this year.

"You can still see them standing in the fields," Penner said of the dilapidated screens that dot the state.

The Pageant suffered the same fate as the others for a while. Wayne Sill said he closed the theater that had been operating since the early 1950s in 1987.

At the time, it was harder to get first-run movies, he said. Some of the movies were shown at the same time they were coming out on video.

His son and daughter-in-law, Mike and Amy, decided to reopen the 350-stall drive-in in 1995. Mike Sill hated driving by and seeing how rundown the theater was becoming.

These days, things are better, Sill said.

That included this night. As fireflies and stars lit the night sky, folks piled into the concessions for popcorn, nachos and drinks before taking to their vehicles or lawn chairs to watch the movie.

"Drive-ins are one of those nostalgic reminders that people still love," Penner said.

If you go:

What: Pageant Drive-in

Where: Medicine Lodge

Miles from Hutchinson: 86

Cost: $6 for adults, $4 for children.

Times: Movies play at dusk Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from May through September.

Other trip stops: Carey Nation home, Stockade Museum, Gyp Hills Scenic Drive, Buster's Saloon at Sun City.

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