Northfield Drive-In celebrates 70 years in business

  • Opening weekend of the Northfield Drive-In on Saturday, May 26, 2018. Recorder Staff/Dan Little

  • The 2018 opening weekend of the Northfield Drive-In. Recorder Staff/Dan Little

  • Ashley Russo, left, and Cassie Garlo settle in to the back of their pickup truck before the start of the movie Saturday evening during opening weekend of the Northfield Drive-In, May 26, 2018. Recorder Staff/Dan Little

  • Co-Owner Carla Folkert scoops popcorn for a costumer at the concession stand Saturday evening during opening weekend of the Northfield Drive-In, May 26, 2018. Recorder Staff/Dan Little

  • Popcorn at the concession stand during opening weekend of the Northfield Drive-In. Recorder Staff/Dan Little

  • Opening weekend of the Northfield Drive-In on Saturday, May 26, 2018. Recorder Staff/Dan Little

  • Briel Gibson, left, and Neva Newcombe settle in to the back of their car with snacks from the concession stand before the start of the movie Saturday evening during opening weekend of the Northfield Drive-In, May 26, 2018. Recorder Staff/Dan Little

  • Opening weekend of the Northfield Drive-In. Recorder Staff/Dan Little

  • Opening weekend of the Northfield Drive-In. Recorder Staff/Dan Little

  • The line for the concession stand winds out the door during the 2018 opening weekend of the Northfield Drive-In. Recorder Staff/Dan Little

  • The line for the concession stand winds out the door during the 2018 opening weekend of the Northfield Drive-In. Recorder Staff/Dan Little

  • Opening weekend of the Northfield Drive-In on Saturday, May 26, 2018. Recorder Staff/Dan Little

Recorder Staff
Published: 6/22/2018 3:50:38 PM

From the neon pink sign facing the road and the ticket booth at the entrance, to the snack bar in the middle of the field that’s partially underground so as to not obstruct the view, most of the Northfield Drive-In is the same now as when it opened in 1948.

In its 70 years, the drive-in off of Route 63 has had only one technical upgrade, when the original arc-and-carbon projector was replaced with a new digital one in 2013.

“We were here that night (when the new projector was unveiled). We were all beeping our horns and flashing our lights. That was a great night,” said Paul Bouchard. The Bouchard family, from Holyoke, has been coming to the Northfield Drive-In since their children, now in their twenties, were little. Now they do it three or four times a season.

“My friends and I used to sit on the roof to watch,” said Desiree Bouchard, 23. “But they don’t allow it anymore.”

“I think it’s a beautiful setting. There’s farms everywhere,” Paul Bouchard said. “There’s one in Connecticut, but it’s all gravel. This one’s nice and grassy. The other places feel more commercialized. I like to patronize him because it’s family-owned. No big company running it. Just him and his family. I think they do a great job.”

Decades of ups and downs

The Shakour family bought the Northfield Drive-In in 1968, when current owner Mitchell Shakour, now 65, was 15.

“My parents were the type of parents where the kids worked as soon as they were old enough,” he said. “Those were the days when you tried to do as many of the jobs yourself. That way you save money to pay your mortgage.”

They bought the drive-in from Carl Nillman, who built it in 1948. It was the first drive-in in western Massachusetts, Shakour said — although most of the property is actually in New Hampshire. Massachusetts had a law requiring that a movie projector be operated by two union employees, so that in case the film caught fire, there would be someone to get the fire extinguisher. New Hampshire didn’t have anything like that.

“So it’s not just an accident that it straddles the state line,” Shakour said.

“This was before TV, so people would just rotate the movie around and come two or three times a week,” he said. Back then, the movies would be changed at least twice a week. “Now Disney says, ‘You want these movies, you gotta play them three weeks in a row.’”

When the Shakours bought the drive-in, it was open every night of the week. Now it’s open only Friday, Saturday and Sunday. This has changed over the years, depending on how much business the drive-in gets. In the late 1970s, Shakour said, it got bad enough that for the first time, it wasn’t worth it anymore to open on weekday nights. Shakour attributes that decline to the advent of VHS machines and HBO.

“The business went down to a point where on a Monday or a Tuesday we’d only have six cars,” Shakour said. “You need to average at least 30 or 40 cars to make any money.”

It continued to get worse. In 1980, Shakour said, the leading industry magazine BoxOffice ran an article projecting that, at the rate drive-in theaters were closing, there wouldn’t be a single one left by 2000. It was the front page story.

“And they were right,” Shakour said. “In the 1980s, they were going out for a lot of reasons. The biggest of which is a lot of them were sitting on big chunks of land near cities. And with the property boom in the ‘80s, suddenly drive-in owners were being offered millions of dollars.”

But: “No one was offering money for this drive-in. We’re out in the middle of nowhere,” Shakour said. “These are the drive-ins that survive. That’s why the states with the most drive-ins are not California, not Florida, not Texas. They’re upper New York state, Ohio, Pennsylvania, where the land is cheap. If this closes, it’ll go back to being a cornfield. There’s no resale value.”

In 1986, more drive-ins in the Northeast closed than any other year, Shakour said. It was the height of the property boom, but it was also an especially rainy summer. Many drive-ins don’t open when it rains. For the Northfield Drive-In, which has a rain-or-shine policy, a rainy night usually means operating expenses won’t even be recouped.

So the summer of 1986 turned out to be the Northfield Drive-In’s worst season ever. It was almost its last too. Mitchell Shakour’s father, Gabriel Shakour, who had been the manager of the drive-in, died that September.

“I didn’t want everyone saying, ‘Oh look at that: the old man dies, the kid shuts down the drive-in, kids today don’t want to work,’” Shakour said. “So I said, ‘I’ll run it one more year and we’ll see.’”

That turned out to be a lucky decision. There was a lot less rain in 1987, Shakour said. It was also, he later realized, the beginning of a resurgence for drive-ins. The next year, the Northfield Drive-In was open every night of the week. That lasted through 2004, after which it again changed back to the current three nights a week.

Rediscovering the drive-in

“I call it like a ball bouncing down the stairs,” Shakour said. “There will be a bounce up, but the bounce up won’t be as high as the previous bounce up, and then when it hits, the thing will be a new low. I’m hoping this will be like the ‘80s again and there will be another boom. What I measure is not dollars, it’s car count, and last year, the car count marked the ‘80s when my dad died. I’m hoping this year, with the 70th anniversary, people will rediscover the drive-in.”

Some are, like Don Craig, who said he used to come to the Northfield Drive-In when he got his driver’s license as a teenager. Now he lives in Buckland and has four kids, ages 5, 7, 12 and 17.

“Obviously, it’s more comfortable to sit on your recliner at home and watch a movie. But it’s nice for the kids to get out,” Craig said. “We’ve got four kids. There’s a lot of fighting. But you come here, they don’t fight.

“It’s more of a family thing now. It used to be people dating, a couple sitting in their car, watching a movie. Now most everyone comes with their family. It’s more of a nostalgic thing … And I enjoy it more now,” he continued.

Fabienne Allen from Greenfield went on her first date with her husband at the Northfield Drive-In in 2001. They’ve been married since 2007, and now bring their four kids, ages 7, 9, 11 and 13, to the drive-in.

“The first time I came here was with him,” Allen said. “He had been before, but that was the first time I had ever come. It was definitely, I don’t know, maybe strange to me at first. I was like, ‘So we just sit outside?’”

There are many more experiences like that, Shakour said.

“They love it because they’re reliving something they went through … They come in here as part of a fantasy, part of a nostalgia world. Whatever the world is doing, this is a part of history that is the same. It’s relaxing, it’s comforting, it’s like eating macaroni and cheese.

“There’s gonna be an upswing, I believe,” he continued. “I think a lot of it is gonna come because of the computers. People are just doing their own thing on computers, kids in their separate rooms. It’s the families that are gonna realize, ‘We need to do something as a family,’ and they’re gonna rediscover the drive-in. I think that’s the future.”

Staff reporter Max Marcus has worked at the Greenfield Recorder since 2018. He covers Northfield, Bernardston, Leyden and Warwick. He can be reached at: mmarcus@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 261.




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