On the day after a date to the Earlville drive-in theater, Paul Bottomley proposed to his now wife Shelley.
It was the beginning of a love affair of film, popcorn and summer nights along U.S. 34.
After the unexpected passing of owner Ron Magnoni Jr. in February, the Bottomleys had a significant challenge ahead of them - how to keep the business they loved going into its 70th year.
Paul Bottomley was busy Thursday working in the kitchen the day before the opening of a “Barbie” / “The Flash” double feature Friday night, the first showings after a delayed start to the season. He has been in and around the drive-in since he was a teenager.
“He’s the Mr. Fix-It,” Shelley Bottomley said, perched on a stool behind the concession stand counter that has remained unchanged in decades, “and I take care of everything up here.”
The building housing the projector, bathrooms and concession stand remain the same as years ago. With a few exceptions, such as new cash registers that can take credit cards, and the digital projector, the drive-in still has window speakers and a double-feature that kicks off at dusk.
The legacy of Magnoni and the owner before him, Charles Dyas, can be seen in the old pictures and ticket stubs framed on the walls. The single screen drive-in opened in June of 1954 and was operated by the Dyas family until 1994, when it was bought by Magnoni.
“Chas and Ron were adamant the popcorn be made fresh every night,” said Shelley Bottomley, who spoke as if both of the late operators were still in the room.
The drive-in has been dark since last fall as the Bottomleys dealt with numerous legal and logistical issues with suppliers and movie distributors.
“Chas was very important to Paul,” said Shelley, her voice cracking to hold back tears, “and Ron was the best man at our wedding.”
“Ron was more than a friend, probably more than a sibling” she added, “if he called at midnight with a problem with the projector, there is no doubt Paul would go.”
Paul takes great pride in the history of the place, with handwritten signs on an antique Montgomery Ward shortwave radio in the projection room that says “Do not touch,” affixed with cellophane tape to the handle.
“Last week someone pulled the antenna up on it and it bent a little,” he said. “That radio was the first thing Ron bought with the money he made from his paper route.”
The new digital projector, complete with an FM radio transmitter for sending audio to the patrons, sits next to an old retired reeled machine. Adjacent to that a cardboard box rests on the floor filled with old window speakers marked with another note, simply stating “bad.”
Paul tinkers with the speakers and wires on a small workbench, trying to stay ahead of the inevitable wear and tear of time and accidents.
“You can see where this one fell and the rivets snapped off,” he said, holding up a speaker with a new window hook installed. “Sometimes they just fall and bang the pole.”
The new business owners appear to have overcome all the major hurdles that kept the place dark this year, including launching a new website, 34DriveIn.com.
“We have room for 300 cars in theory” Paul said, “but at around 200 it does get crowded.”
The Route 34 Drive-In will be open every Friday, Saturday, Sunday through the end of October. Gates open at 7 p.m. and the first movie begins at dusk. “Barbie” and “The Flash” are scheduled Aug. 4-6 and Aug. 11-13.