The serious drive-in movie fans plan their night like a Patriots tailgate party. The checklist of items often include chairs, drinks, snacks and blankets.
The serious drive-in movie fans plan their night like a Patriots tailgate party. The checklist of items often include chairs, drinks, snacks and blankets. SUN/SCOTT SHURTLEFF

Whatever forces drove out the drive-ins in America, they failed to reach southern New Hampshire.

The Milford Drive-In movie theater complex still enjoys a robust popularity after 50 years in the outdoor film industry.

The in-car movie-going experience is both a nostalgic throwback to yesteryears, and an affordable, family-friendly event for 21st-century summers. The dual screens in Milford offer a choice of double-features every Thursday through Sunday night from April 15 until early October.

Don't be fooled by the attractive $27-per-carload price tag. The Milford Drive-In plays only hit movies that are currently playing at indoor cinemas around the country.

Last weekend, when the much-anticipated "Deadpool 2" debuted at the franchise theaters and multiplexes, it also dropped in Milford to the delight of hundreds of lounge-chair fans wrapped in blankets and cuddled in hatchbacks.

Bob Scharmett has owned and operated the 11-acre parcel since its launch 50 years ago. He attributes the endurance of his establishment to the failure of many others. There were once drive-ins in Lowell, Tyngsboro and Nashua.

"There is no competition within hours of here.


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Milford Drive-in co-owner Bob and Barry Scharmett also own car washes in Leominster. Bob, left, says they break even on the drive-in but,  We do it because
Milford Drive-in co-owner Bob and Barry Scharmett also own car washes in Leominster. Bob, left, says they break even on the drive-in but, We do it because we love it. His car s license plate even reads MOVIE. SUN FILE PHOTO
But there are cinemas everywhere, which is hard to compete with," he said, referring to the chain cineplexes like Showcase and AMC.

Scharmett and his family also own a chain of car washes in the Leominster area, which helps to offset "breaking even in the drive-in movie business."

Of that side job, he says, "We do it because we love it."

The drive-in is far more than a movie night. It's an experience, rich with restaurant-quality food, playgrounds for the kids and pickup truck comfort under the stars to watch first-run feature films.

"There were once 4,000 drive-in movies in America," he explains. "Today there are only 326."

It was 85 years ago this month that the first patent was awarded for a drive-up movie screen. And, on June 6, 1933, in Camden, N.J., the "Park-In Theaters" rolled the first flickering footage from a car-mounted Kodak projector. The idea caught on, and by the 1960s, thousands of open-air movie theaters sprang up across the United States.

Dracut resident Amy McVey is a frequent visitor to the drive-in. "We can drink wine here. It's cheaper than a cinema, and if it's a nice night out, it's really great here. We come once or twice every summer," she said of her group of regulars.

The two screens, which are about 60 feet by 90 feet, are set at opposite ends of the expansive plot. One side is for PG-rated movies geared toward families. The other is more for adults who come as groups of friends or as date-night hideaways. At dusk, the images flicker on the massive white walls, and each car has its radio tuned to a designated frequency, which transmits the audio. A narrative voice welcomes guests in a tone and cadence akin to 1950s radio dramas. The murmur of the visitors fades away as the movie begins its broadcast.

For those who didn't bring their own munchies, a complete menu of cost-efficient, high-quality fare is available in the centrally located snack bar. Carol Witsoe is the manager of that foodstand.

"We have all kinds of theme-based events here," she said. "We have lots of birthday parties and even a few on-screen marriage proposals."

In 2015, Milford Drive-in simulcast The Grateful Dead's final concert in Chicago.

One patron, Scott Haynes of Brookline, N.H., is a loyal customer.

"It's close by, it has better acoustics than other cinemas, is cheaper and more comfortable," Haynes says.

The seasoned veterans of drive-in movies equip themselves with proper accoutrements. Some tips for the rookies include bringing your own chairs -- the cars get uncomfortable especially for the back-seaters. Bring blankets or sweaters, it is New England and outdoors after all.

Scharmett cautions, too, that weather may not always be ideal, but he will roll on two regardless.

"We only have about 110 opportunities to be open, so we're gonna be open."

Even though the sun went down on the industry 20 years ago, when the sun goes down in Milford, it's showtime.