The nostalgic experience of a night at the Drive-In just got a modern upgrade at Comanche Drive-In Theater in Buena Vista. From film to fantastic, they now have a 4K digital projector that enables this classic theater to show first-run movies. This major change has inspired other great changes – including staying open through the fall.
“This is a big change for us and it just makes an amazing difference,” says Barb Groy, one of the owners. “People are super pleased. The picture is so much brighter. Even the sound is a lot better. There are just a lot more possibilities with this new system.”
Opened in 1966, the Comanche is widely-considered one of the nation’s official “Cinema Treasures.” In this multiplex world, drive-ins are a rare piece of pure Americana. Nationwide, only about 300 drive-in theaters still exist. Colorado has less than 10.
This one is unique. It is the highest elevation drive-in theater in the world. The Sawatch mountain range, dominated by peaks over 14,000 feet, provides the theater’s backdrop. And away from “city lights,” movies at the Comanche come with a milky way – the starry kind, that is.
Because the new equipment makes showing new movies possible, they’re extending the viewing season through fall, rather than closing in September. They hope to open at Christmas with a holiday movie and open earlier in the spring, as well.
The theater has been in the Groy family since it opened. John and Barb Groy, the second-generation who now run daily operations, credit its longevity to being family-owned and persistence on everybody’s part. They’re committed to keeping it running because it provides a form of classic entertainment every generation should know.
“It part of our family heritage and will remain a family business,” they say.
John and Pearl Groy opened the single-screen theater more than a half century ago and it ran for 42 consecutive summers. It closed after the 2008 season and reopened in 2011. In the last five years, however, it became harder and harder to get 35mm films. The family kept it open by showing classics only, which people liked and supported.
Without major corporate backing, this independently-owned local treasure may have gone dark when the movie industry switched to digital, though. That’s been the fate of most small rural theaters when faced with such an extravagantly expensive upgrade. Deciding to make such a big investment wasn’t easy for the Groy’s – but became necessary.
In May 2018 the process to obtain a digital projector finally became a reality. They purchased a used Barco 4k Digital Projector, enabling them to get all the latest blockbusters. After several setbacks the new technology was installed. The first digital film, “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” was shown on August 10th.
They had help bringing the theater into the ‘modern age’ by Dwight Finney of Salida. Finney is a former video editor, engineer, director and camera operator with the appropriate nickname, “The Reel Wizard.”
The new technology also gives John a welcome break. After years of being one of the last 35 mm projectionists, he now enjoys the ease of the upgraded system. No more changeovers, breaks or burnt film to worry about.
They’ll hang on to the old Carbon Art 35 mm Projectors as “museum pieces,” and will run an occasional classic just for nostalgia.
Best Popcorn Around
The family has more ideas for upgrading, but many things don’t need changing at all. The theater still has its large original screen, original projection building and its original popcorn popper. Barb is not surprised that the majority of reviews give the popcorn two thumbs up.
“Our popcorn is totally amazing. We make it in a 1954 Manley Popcorn Popper that has been here as long as the drive-in has. The secrets of making great popcorn has been passed down in family history,” Barb says. Part of their secret is using real butter, “not that oil stuff many theaters use.”
At the Comanche, watching a movie is not just entertainment but also a way of celebrating history and appreciating the past. Possibly while wearing PJs.
For showtimes visit www.comanchedrivein.com or call 719-395-2766. Located three miles west of Buena Vista on CR 306. Open Weekends. Cash only.
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