PONCA CITY — A steady stream of cars lines the road leading into the old drive-in movie theater on the western edge of the city. Soon, the old beloved Airline Drive-In will be demolished to make way for a new housing development.
But before that happens, residents of this Kay County city in north-central Oklahoma, led by local Christian radio station The House FM, are giving the nostalgic theater a faith-full sendoff.
In a huge community effort that has captured the spirit of the drive-in in its heyday, the theater has been brought back to life for one final movie, the Christian-themed film, “God’s Not Dead.” Admission is free to see the movie, with showings continuing Saturday and Sunday and again Aug. 22-23.
“Anybody that is driving by this property, they have to know that something is going on,” said Doyle Brewer, CEO, founder and manager of The House FM. “The place looks great, probably better than it has in 50 years.”
Brewer, 56, said he drives by the drive-in every day on his way to work and decided to reach out to the local owners to pitch his idea for one last hurrah for the theater. Brewer said the owners loved his idea of getting the drive-in back in shape for a Christian-themed farewell.
He said he knew that the drive-in, named for its location near the municipal airport, holds a special place in the hearts of most Ponca City residents. It’s the last of two local drive-ins that served up movie entertainment when such theaters were at the height of their popularity and one of only a handful still in existence in Oklahoma.
The Airline had been closed since 2007, and Brewer said it definitely showed the effects of the years-long closure, such as a multitude of sky-high grass, large gray streaks on the movie screen and a “dinosaur” movie projector that was no longer viable.
Still, Brewer pledged that he and others in the community could prime it for one last movie run.
He said he knew people in Ponca City and the surrounding area would come out to support the effort — and they are doing just that.
On Thursday, the evangelistic effort’s opening night, organizers said 521 cars, with an estimated 1,325 people, packed into the drive-in. Brewer said the community was told that the drive-in’s gates would open at 7 p.m., but the first vehicles started showed up as early as 5:45 p.m.
The event’s nostalgic opening night drew people like Charles Hall, whose parents — the late Don and Frances Hall — managed the Airline Drive-in, as well as the other drive-ins and indoor theaters in Ponca City. Hall, 66, said he came all the way from Austin, Texas, to relive the drive-in’s glory days one last time.
“There’s a lot of joy for me tonight. I can’t describe it,” Hall said.
He said he also came to see that close family friend Geneva Alston got to experience the drive-in again. Hall said Alston, 89, and her husband, Barney, spent their entire careers working at the Airline Drive-In. He said Barney Alston, who is now deceased, ran the projector while his wife ran the concessions.
Hall said he remembered sleeping in the back of the Alston’s car as a child while movies played on the large drive-in screen overhead.
He said he brought Alston and other residents of the assisted-living center where she lives to the movie on Thursday. Alston, sitting in a lawn chair in the front of the Airline, said she was enjoying herself. She said she was particularly pleased that she rode to her old stomping grounds in her 1966 Mustang with its Amber Glow original paint still in pristine condition.
Other residents said the evangelism effort gave them a good opportunity to relive some happy memories. They came and sat on blanket near their cars, sat in their pickup beds and walked from car to car to visit with each other. Children ran around in excitement. Some plopped themselves in lawn chairs adults set out for them at twilight.
Randy Walker, 54, said he and his sweetheart, Rebecca (now deceased), spent date nights at the drive-in before they eventually wed.
He also said one of his family members who lived in a home west of the drive-in regularly had barbecue get-togethers, and the family watched the featured films from the backyard. The last film he saw there was “On Golden Pond.”
Bill Dewey, 52, said he brought his mother, Beverly Dewey, 79, because it had been one of their favorite places to go. He said the last movie he saw at the theater was “Hercules” when his daughter, who is now 21, was just 2 years old.
“It’s kind of sad,” he said of the drive-in’s looming demise. “Just about every town had a drive-in, but now they are a thing of the past.”
Seventy-somethings Fred and Joanne Horinek were among those in attendance.
“We’d bring our grandchildren and have pizza out in the open,” Joanne Horinek said.
“It’s the movie and the memories of being here — that’s why we came,” her husband added. “It’s (the drive-in) going to be gone soon.”
Dennis Manley said he came to the drive-in with his wife and daughter, even though they already had seen the movie at the downtown Poncan Theater. He said the drive-in often drew many people from nearby areas like Blackwell, Newkirk and Tonkawa.
“It was good, cheap entertainment,” he said. “I think it’s good to see all these people here. It brings back memories.”
Brook Sikes, 20, stood in line to buy popcorn for 5 cents and soda for $1 with several of her friends.
“Really we just came because it’s the last movie they’re showing here. We think it’s really neat that they put this together,” she said.
Brewer said the cost to refurbish the old drive-in has swelled to about $10,000.
He said the radio station bought a projector to use for the event and future efforts so donations are being accepted for the evangelism effort. However, he said the project wouldn’t have gotten to its current stage of success without lots of major support from local businesses and churches.
Brewer said several local churches were asked to help host the movie effort for the first four nights, with each required to bring 2,000 bottles of water to distribute for free and enough volunteers to help with parking and traffic.
Thursday night was sponsored by Brookfield Wesleyan Church, while Northeast Baptist Church agreed to sponsor Friday night and First Baptist Church of Ponca City planned to host on Saturday and Sunday.
A prayer tent also was set up, and the vintage-priced popcorn and soda were sold in an area near the old concession stand.
Brewer said the community had several weekend work days to prepare the drive-in for its finale, and some local business leaders like electricians, painters, mowers and others worked even more than that to see the drive-in filled with people one last time.
Kelsey Wagner, 29, a member of Brookfield Wesleyan, said she was thrilled to see the large turnout for Thursday’s opening.
“I think there’s such a close tie between film and emotion, and I think we’re seeing evidence of that as we say farewell to the drive-in,” she said.
Effort organizers said brief announcements and several music videos will be shown at 8:30 each night, followed by the feature film at 9.
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