September 10, 2013 at 4:33 PM

Save the Fort Union Drive-In!

By Casey St. Charnez

Media Rare

Casey St. Charnez has been video editor for Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide since 1986 and buyer for Lisa Harris' Video Library since 1981. He likes Lisa, cats, crosswords, and the Metropolitan Opera, probably in that order.

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Here comes the final weekend of movies this season at the Fort Union Drive-In over in Las Vegas. But according to Jeanna DiLucchio, the business owner/operator since 1989, this also could be the final weekend, period.

There’s an $80,000 problem, she announced on the theater’s answering machine last week. That’s the cost of a new digital projector to replace the two venerable 35mm carbon-arc units. (“You can’t find the parts any more, not even on the Internet!” DiLucchio wailed to me in a phone interview).

Accordingly, the civic-minded Las Vegas First business group has set up a “Save the Fort Union Drive-In” fund at Community First Bank, soliciting public and private sector donations so that the revamped theater might re-open in May, 2014, as usual.  

Currently, motion picture exhibition is at the tail end of a technological revolution that has seen the end of studios shipping bulky film cans to theaters. Like science-fiction come true, the advent of movies run by downloading software has all but eliminated celluloid, resulting in crisp, unblemished, dust- and scratch-free images.

Multiplexes—like the Regal Stadium 14--have been quick to upgrade. Only repertory and specialty houses—like the Jean Cocteau, The Screen, and the CCA Cinematheque—retain the obsolete projectors alongside their electronic descendants, so as to show older titles otherwise unavailable. But for mainstream cinema, it’s digital or nothing. The industry has set 2013 as its mandate for theater owners to switch over or to close up.

That’s why the Fort Union is sweating it, as drive-ins are among the last to convert. Moving into the digital era is an extremely expensive proposition for a theater open only four months of the year. And the drive-in is a vanishing breed. Nationwide, there are about 350 remaining of the 4,000+ running some 60 years ago. The only other one left in New Mexico is the digitized three-screen Fiesta in Carlsbad (whose old-school Big Sky and Corral are long gone).

Also vanished, of course, are Santa Fe’s beloved Yucca and Pueblo. Española’s Starlighter on N. Riverside Drive is now a housing tract. In Taos, a Wal-Mart sits on the site of the Kit Carson. Albuquerque had a dozen drive-ins over the years, among them the unique Circle Autoscope. Even Artesia, Chama, Hobbs, Shiprock, Clayton, Hatch, Grants, and Socorro all had one each. All history.

The same can not happen to the Fort Union. In Las Vegas, but for three years in the 80s, when a former owner had some hard times and closed it down, this ozoner (as ­Variety used to call drive-ins) has been a Friday/Saturday/Sunday night tradition since 1959.

With a hopping, snack-packed concession stand, a dependable double feature with the family film first, and something of an open-air party atmosphere with friends, neighbors, and daters milling around, the Fort Union is a summer staple.

The last double feature of summer 2013 is We’re the Millers (shot in New Mexico, as was 1984’s Red Dawn, which so memorably dressed the Fort Union as a detainment camp), plus The Conjuring, a scary, scary movie that’s an appropriate choice for this Friday the 13th weekend.

Even better, all the refreshments will be on sale. Pizza, popcorn, nachos, yum.

It’s easy to find, at 3300 Seventh Street (aka Highway 518), about a mile north of town on the way to Mora.

For more info, call the Fort Union at (505)-425-9934. You can also check out their Facebook page.

Honk your horn if you see Lisa and me Saturday night. Just please don’t do it during the movie.

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