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End of an era: Globe’s drive-in theater set to close, following national trend

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GLOBE – Every Friday, Saturday and Sunday night during the summertime, Bobby Hollis’ Apache Drive-in is one of the main attractions in town.

Ten dollars buys admission for an entire carload – as many moviegoers as will fit. Most people show up early to get the best spots and line up at the concession stand for the Hollis family’s famous red chile burritos.

Then, as the sun sinks behind the Pinal Mountains, friends, family and neighbors settle in for a double feature under the stars.

“This drive-in is personal,” Hollis said. “We know pretty much everyone who comes here.”

But the Apache, said by Hollis and others to be Arizona’s last single-screen drive-in, is preparing to show its final movie and fade into memory like so many other drive-ins across rural America. Hollis plans to close the theater later this month in large part because he can’t afford the $130,000 it would take to convert to digital projection.

“Nobody is gonna loan me the money to convert to digital,” Hollis said. “Trust me, I’ve looked.”

The 35 mm films that the Apache’s 40-year-old projector runs are getting harder and harder to come by. And dealing with film is time-intensive: Hollis and his employees have to cut and tape sections together before loading the huge reels.

“The drive-in is a break-even proposition,” Hollis said.

There is a glimmer of hope, though. To help save drive-ins from closing, Honda Motor Co. is awarding five digital projectors to theaters based on online voting by the public. The Apache Drive-in is one of many theaters in the running.

Hollis said he’d keep the Apache open, at least for now, if he wins a projector.

But even if he could afford to convert to digital, Hollis said the theater’s profitability wouldn’t improve. The 8-acre lot’s value for other uses has grown as available housing in Globe has become increasingly scarce.

“The land value has become so much that it’s not feasible to run a drive-in,” Hollis said.

The business challenges don’t lessen the sense of loss for those who have grown up with the Apache Drive-in, a local institution since 1954. After a fire destroyed the original wooden screen in the early ’70s, Hollis’ father, Frank, rebuilt the drive-in at its current location in 1974.

Jim and Nancy Phillips, graduates of Globe High School who have been married nearly 60 years, fondly recall their dates at the Apache Drive-in.

“If we were gonna go make out, the only safe place to do it was the drive-in,” Jim Phillips laughed. “Nancy’s father wouldn’t pay to come in, and they wouldn’t let him in for free.”

“It’s sad,” Nancy Phillips said. “There’s some really good things that are leaving this world.”

At the couple’s home in Apache Junction, Jim Phillips said he’s sad too, but while he’ll miss drive-ins he said he prefers the clarity and consistency of digital.

“Times have changed,” he said, “and you’ve got to change with them.”

Hollis said others share that view; while everyone wants to save the Apache, they realize that change is inevitable.

“Some people will be mad because they don’t want to see

the drive-in go, but it’s progress,” Hollis said.

David E. Weber, an associate professor of communication studies at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, said drive-ins have declined nationally because they can’t compete with the abundance of convenient options available, including renting DVDs, using Netflix or purchasing movies on demand.

“Drive-ins come from a time when the romance with the car was new,” Weber said.

In smaller communities, he said, the loss of a drive-in takes away an opportunity for the community to come together.

“I’m sad to see drive-ins go because it’s like seeing a part of my childhood go,” Weber said.

The Apache won’t go without a goodbye from the community. Linda Gross, publisher of the Globe Miami Times, is organizing a farewell gala Sept. 28 that includes classic cars, a 1960s costume contest and a showing of “American Graffiti.”

“I know how much this community loves their history and how attached people are to this drive-in,” Gross said. “That’s why I want to make it a historic event.”

The first choice for the final movie was “Midnight Run,” a Robert De Niro classic with scenes shot in Globe, but Hollis wasn’t able to find a copy on 35 mm film.

Hollis said he’s glad to have the chance to say goodbye. He spent his teenage years working at the Apache, picking up garbage and mopping floors. He said he’ll always remember what it was like on those summer nights in the ’70s when a blockbuster like the original “Rocky” was on the screen and it seemed like the whole town was on hand.

“You see headlights coming in, people are filling the snack bar and everyone is charged up to see “Rocky,” he said. “That’s how I’ll remember the Apache.”