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Bethel Drive-In Launches Projector Campaign

Bethel — For more than a decade, Regina Franz and Adam Gerhard held onto the dream of owning a drive-in theater.

Last year, it came true when they took over the operation of the Randall Drive-in Theatre in Bethel. To make it happen, they poured money into the leased facility, repairing the Tropical Storm Irene-damage screen, fixing the projector and cleaning up the area where 185 cars can park.

But now, they’re victims of technology, and if they don’t raise another $20,000 to lease a digital projector, they won’t have movies to show, and by the end of this season, they’ll be out of the business. Movie producers are moving rapidly away from film and toward digital recordings, forcing theaters nationwide to change projectors. The shift is more expensive for the remaining 300 or so drive-ins the country because the machines have to project the movies at a greater distance on a larger screen.

Franz and Gerhard have launched a new Kickstarter campaign to raise the money. Last week, they had raised almost $5,000 from 48 backers. As of today, they have 37 days left on the campaign.

New digital projectors for drive-ins cost about $75,000, and Franz and Gerhard had tried to raise that amount in an earlier Kickstarter effort, which failed. Now, they’re trying to get backing for enough to lease the machine and make more infrastructure repairs, Franz said last week.

Franz and Gerhard got hooked on drive-in movies back in 2004. They traveled around country and went more than 100 of them. They worked in drive-ins in New York, New Hampshire and Maine, and they learned the operation from popcorn to parking, all in preparation for owning a business that’s way beyond its prime, she said.

“We both just really love drive-ins, and we’re hoping to keep this one alive. We had a really great season last year, and we really want to keep going,” Franz said last week.

The partners have a year-to-year lease on the Randall, which they open on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. They commute each weekend to the run the business from their home in Newmarket, N.H., near the seacoast. Gerhard runs a software business, and Franz is remodeling their 100-year-old home.

When they open on May 2 with Spiderman 2, they won’t know the results of the fund-raising campaign, but they hope the fresh season will generate new interest.

Meanwhile, Peter and Erika Trapp, the owners of the Fairlee Drive-in Theater, are making another stab at a Kickstarter campaign to raise what they need for the projector. An earlier effort failed to reach the goal, and now, they’ve set a goal to raise $27,595. Last week with 43 days to go, more than $3,300 had been pledged from 49 backers. They plan on opening soon, the theater’s web site says.

The first drive-in theater in the country was started by Richard M. Hollingshead in Camden, N.J., in 1933. The craze caught on, and by the heyday in the 1950s, more than 5,000 drive-ins had opened, according to Drive-in.com, a site devoted to the theaters.

Now, there are three in Vermont and about the same number in New Hampshire.