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The last picture show

Oct 19, 2013 - By John M. Glionna, McClatchy Newspapers

POWELL -- 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 percent 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.

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