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Illustrated Interview: The Show Goes on at Bethel Drive-In



Saturday, August 12, 2017

Bethel — David and Tammy Tomaszewski, of Randolph, began operating the Bethel Drive-In in 2015 after the previous operators’ tenure came to a tumultuous end amid allegations of fundraising deception and a civil lawsuit by the state of Vermont. The couple, who have run the Playhouse Movie Theatre in Randolph since 1988, immediately began renovating the 63-year-old venue (formerly known as the Randall Drive-In), which sits nestled in a field between Route 12 and Gilead Brook. They erected a new — and bigger — metal screen, made a variety of other improvements, and installed a rebuilt digital projection system. The sound system is digital, as well. The Tomaszewskis — he’s 62 and she’s 53 — took time recently to respond via email to questions about their efforts to preserve what has been billed as the smallest drive-in movie theater in the country. (Questions and answers have been lightly edited.)

First things first: Large or small popcorn? With butter or without?

Large popcorn. We serve with real butter.

 

Talk about some of the improvements you’ve made to the facility, other than the digital equipment, since you took over in 2015. What was the biggest hurdle or most complicated project? Did anything come together more easily than you expected?

The biggest hurdle to overcome is letting people know that the drive-in is open under the new name, Bethel Drive-In. The owner of the drive-in, Scott Corse, helped us paint the concession bus. We replaced concession windows, took care of overgrown vegetation, and he had a deck built in front of the bus. The first year was just about being open. At the end of the season we replaced the septic tank knowing that infrastructure improvements would have to be done first. Prior to opening in 2016, we took down the screen that had been up since 1954 and replaced it with a metal Shelby screen. In the concession bus, we installed flooring and a grill with twice the capacity. In 2017, we assembled the digital system. Everything came together as planned.

Your first digital movie presentation took place over the Memorial Day weekend. How did that go? Were there any bugs to work out?

All of our digital presentations have gone without a hitch. There was a time over the summer when I was having trouble communicating with the projector. However, that was soon resolved and never affected a show. There also was an instance when we momentarily lost power during a thunderstorm. Our electronics are protected with a battery backup.

 

What’s it like working with Hollywood studios to book films? Is there a long pause at the other end of the phone line when you say you’re calling from a drive-in in Vermont?

We’ve been booking our own movies for over 30 years and our contacts come and go at the studios. Being a small grosser, we too often hear, “We’re going wide with that release, but not that wide.”

 

How has attendance been this season?

Considering that this has been a wet summer and we are an outside business, we are happy with the attendance we’ve been getting and the positive feedback. Box office tickets are off over 10 percent nationally this year, probably due to the quality of the movies that are currently distributed.

Weather and nature seem to be constant challenges — dusk is a different time every evening, and rain often means a smaller audience. How do you stay on top of those constant variables?

Easy: We play rain or shine, start when it gets dark and pray for better weather.

The policies posted on the Bethel Drive-In website politely call for “common courtesy.” Is there any one problem that comes up regularly? How do you handle it?

Our customers are the best and we seldom have any issues. The most common thing is people don’t realize that their parking lights are still on. I just need to walk around and notify people of their lights.

What role does on-screen advertising play in the success of the drive-in? How has the business community responded?

On-screen advertising is essential for our success because we have not asked the community to fund our digital conversion, nor are we receiving any (subsidies) from the movie companies to help with the conversion. Our local area business community is aware of our situation, has stepped up to show community support, and has supported our efforts to retain history and tradition in our area.

There are approximately 321 drive-ins left in the country compared with 60 years ago, when there were 4,007. Will there be any in, say, 25 years?

Yes, if people continue to support us. The movie companies have policies that are not conducive for small theatres.

You seem pretty proud of the french fries you serve in your big blue concession bus — the website describes “the multi-day process” required to make them. So what’s the secret to perfect drive-in movie fries?

There really isn’t a secret. We hand-cut large russet potatoes and soak them overnight in a special vinegar and salt brine prior to being twice fried. The result we seek is an English style with a crisp exterior and soft, meaty interior. Our particular process was developed over a couple of years with the bus crew doing the taste-testing. Lorena, Bill, Mandy, and Dale tell me to leave the process alone. They love the fries. Lorena does a great job cooking and is our sole employee. Bill, Mandy and Dale are all wonderful people who have volunteered their time to make this drive-in a success.

 

Do either of you remember the first movie you saw at a drive-in? Do you remember who you saw it with?

My earliest memory of going to the drive-in was with Mom and Dad and brother and two sisters in a Ford Falcon. We were small and enjoyed the experience, though not so much for the tight quarters. Tammy and I used to go to the White River Drive-In with friends when we were dating in the mid-’80s. Tammy’s first recollections are of going with her Mom to see Billy Jack movies and going with her Dad to see Pink Panther movies.

Is the drive-in still the go-to venue for making out?

Now that I wouldn’t know.

When you’re not showing or watching movies, what do you do for fun?

There is not much time for fun in the traditional sense. I take my wife to the movies most every night. Actually, just being able to spend my days with this wonderful woman is fun. Prior to the drive-in we enjoyed hiking, hunting and gardening. I still have time for my winter projects, though. Last two winters I restored a 1963 Chevy truck. This winter I hope to do work on a Royal Enfield 500cc single.

Editor’s note: This is the third in an occasional series of illustrated interviews. Send suggestions for future subjects to sbraley@vnews.com.