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Indiana community urges restoration of closed drive-in

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Posted: Thursday, July 11, 2013 5:42 pm | Updated: 7:10 am, Fri Jul 12, 2013.

MUNCIE, Ind. — Like the last crumbling outpost of a lost civilization, the Ski-Hi Drive-In theater stands at the junction of two highways just north of Muncie.

The remnants of the screen tower where countless comedies and horror flicks played out is dotted with gaping holes. Most of the letters making up the name of the theater have long since fallen from the front of the tower facing Ind. 3 and 28. The concession stand and projection booth have been vandalized and marred by graffiti.

But could the Ski-Hi — scene of so many fictional vampires and zombies scrambling out of the grave onscreen — come back to life?

Michael Chalfant isn't opposed to the idea. Chalfant, a Muncie businessman, bought the 20-acre theater property two years ago on a whim. Chalfant lives in the far reaches of northern Delaware County and drove past one day and noticed a "for sale" sign.

"I pulled over and gave them a call and got a price," Chalfant told The Star Press (http://tspne.ws/1723PH2 ). "I talked to my wife and said, 'We need to buy it and see what we can do with it.'"

But what exactly to do with the drive-in has become something of a quandary for Chalfant. Initially he thought about bulldozing the remaining structures and trying to develop the property at the busy intersection.

Bev Brand is hoping Chalfant doesn't take that step. Brand — whose family's business, Brand Sheet Metal Works, built the Ski-Hi's screen tower in the early 1950s — wants to see the Ski-Hi rehabbed and revived.

"It's a family thing," the Muncie woman said, explaining that her interest in the Ski-Hi goes beyond the sheet metal company's involvement in erecting the screen more than 60 years ago. "People went there when they were kids and they want to be able to take their kids there."

Around Indiana and the United States, a handful of drive-in theaters survive. The resurrection of the Ski-Hi — if it happened — would be a big reversal to a trend that's been ongoing for 30 years.

After their birth in Camden, New Jersey, in 1933, drive-in theaters quickly spread across the country. America's car culture and the rise of entertainment to appeal to teenagers helped fuel the drive-in age.

By the end of the 1950s, more than 4,000 drive-ins were entertaining moviegoers. Among those was the Ski-Hi, built in 1952. The Ski-Hi and the Muncie Drive-In, on Kilgore Avenue, attracted hundreds of cars each weekend. The Muncie, on Kilgore Avenue, closed in the 1980s. But the Ski-Hi survived the twin threats that killed most of the nation's drive-ins: the home video revolution and an increase in the value of drive-in property for other development.

A handful of East Central Indiana drive-in theaters remain among some of the 600 or so left around the country, according to USA Today.

The Ski-Hi hung in there until 2005, when Kerasotes Theaters — at the time the owner of all of Muncie's indoor theaters — decided against reopening it.

Chalfant brought the property from AMC, the company that had purchased local theaters from Kerasotes.

Almost immediately, Chalfant discovered how much of an attraction the drive-in remains.

"You'd be surprised at how many people stop by when I'm mowing," he said. The curious and well-wishers include past managers and, of course, many patrons.

There's a deep affection for the Ski-Hi among those who used to attend movies there. While Star Press staffers were at the Ski-Hi, Marcia Zigler pulled her pickup truck into the drive-in's entrance.

Zigler acknowledged she's been a lifelong fan of the theater and hopes something happens to revive it.

"I have a set of speakers from the Ski-Hi," Zigler said, adding that she happened upon the drive-in when the speakers and posts were being removed years ago and asked for a pair.

Chalfant — who said he bought the Ski-Hi for $65,000 — has tried to maintain the property, although the weather and vandals have taken a toll. Trespassers have broken into not only the apartment at the base of the tower but the concession stand.

"Everything's pretty well gone," he said. "Thieves have taken the scrap and the wiring. The snack bar is beyond repair. The counters are still in there but it's pretty much been rummaged through."

Local building inspectors have contacted Chalfant about the deterioration of the property, although he said he believes he's addressed their concerns at least in part by keeping the property mowed.

Brand said she's talked to Chalfant several times about the property, noting that Brand Sheet Metal Works would like a chance to restore the screen tower it built more than 60 years ago. She said she'd like to organize a group to explore the possible revitalization of the theater. Chalfant said it would take more funds than he can commit to the project.

"I don't even know the first thing about it," Chalfant said. "I wouldn't know where to begin. It could take $300,000 to $500,0000 to do it. We're going to keep it mowed, but we can't do anything with the structure. Maybe a nonprofit organization would do it."

In the meantime, Chalfant said, "I have no immediate plans to demolish it."

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