Greenville Drive-in’s festive vibe
The 59-year-old fixture a laid-back social hub with old movies and forward-thinking owners
The sun was lowering on Greenville. The shadows were lengthening. Slender clouds reached across the blue and over the nearby Catskills as a scattering of people, lounging on blankets and chairs, relaxed in a grassy field dotted with cars and trucks.
Cornhole and badminton stood at the ready. Folks shuttled in and out of a snack bar, the door smacking shut behind them. A guitarist cranked through tunes in a courtyard as bar patrons swirled cocktails accessorized with tiny plastic monkeys: Simians were the theme of the evening.
That perfect summer idyll would soon be interrupted by a giant, rampaging ape.
“I’m going to attempt to scream like Fay Wray at some point,” said Matt Durfee, the guitarist, in the tranquil hour and a half before “King Kong” made its entrance at the Greenville Drive-in. The 1933 action-horror classic was scheduled to hit the screen at the outdoor venue, a 59-year-old summer fixture lately reinventing itself as
a laid-back social hub outfitted with oldfangled movies, newfangled mixed drinks and an air of easygoing warmth.
“It’s very social,” said Leigh Van Swall, who runs the Greenville with her husband, Dwight Grimm. Added Grimm: “What’s funny is that at the end of the night, the place kind of turns a little bit into a clubhouse — because we have our regulars. Like, the movie’s an excuse to come down and hang out and catch up on stuff.”
For Grimm and Van Swall, the Greenville — also known as Drive-in 32 — is an ongoing creative venture. It’s been three years since the couple took over, installing a digital projector, securing a liquor license and bringing their love of throwback movies to a Greene County mainstay.
Van Swall runs concessions. Grimm handles the digital projector and works the bar, mixing up his own signature concoctions with their own signature trading cards. The special for “King Kong” weekend, at $7 a pop: The Fay Wray, a medley of sour cherry, orange bitters, black locust and lillet.
Drinks stay in the garden; imbibing in vehicles is not allowed. Pickups with mattresses encouraged. Dogs are fine, so long as they’re friendly, leashed and don’t bark “at cars, people, the moon, you or at the movies” — so sayeth the Greenville FAQ page, which lays out the guidelines.
Gates open two hours before showtime. No reserving specific spots. No outside food, please. Movies screen in the rain, but not if there’s lightning. Car radios should be tuned to 88.7 FM, though old-fashioned drivein speakers line the rear of the beer garden, and boom-boxes are available on loan for the evening for cars without radios.
Otherwise, the atmosphere is chill. “One of the nice things about running a drive-in is that very, very few people have a bad time,” Grimm observed.
On that night of “Kong” in June, a handful of early arrivals clustered around the bar, chatting with Grimm and Van Swall, who seemed to know every other person trickling in. The regulars, they said, tend to come from within a half-hour’s drive, but groups have been wafting in from all over.
The Greenville “has a more festive vibe to it” than the usual places, said Sarah Belawski of Albany, one of the folks lounging between cars. She likes sitting outside, interacting with people, taking it easy. And something else: “We can’t have a picnic at Crossgates.”
Some make the schlep from New York City. One group tumbled in from Long Island, lured by the chance to watch “Grease” alfresco on an 80-by35-foot screen. “The more we come, the more people we see,” said Jonathan Gross, a regular from Maplecrest. “We’re seeing families, we’re seeing older people, younger people. It’s a classic old-school drive-in, and you can’t find that anywhere.”
Outdoor movie theaters abound in the region — which, Grimm notes, has one of the highest densities of drive-ins anywhere. But unlike the Hiway in Coxsackie, which can schedule as many as eight movies a night on its four screens, the Greenville boasts just one.
While it will, on occasion, offer the first-run blockbuster, classic programming is the theater’s bread and butter. New movies are expensive and demand longer commitments from distributors, Grimm said. Films of an older vintage — what that FAQ page calls “popular retro movies” — cost less, can run for a night or a weekend and don’t compete with other theaters.
That, and they can have some fun with them. Upcoming plans, for instance, include an as-yetunscheduled double feature of “Shaun of the Dead” and “Zombieland.” Dress as a zombie and get in free.
After three years, their business end is solidifying: They’ve officially completed the purchase. “It is becoming more viable,” said Van Swall, who works in foster care when she isn’t at the drive-in.
“We do realize this is an unusual model,” said Grimm, a film and video producer who once worked for Jim Henson Productions. “If we weren’t loving this we wouldn’t be doing this.”
For starters, they love outdoor movies. The couple caught them at the Greenville before they took over. Grimm spent part of his childhood in Alice Springs, a remote Australian town where the only theater was a drive-in, and he once watched “Kong” outdoors, in the rain, in Manhattan’s Bryant Park. Among the many tales he unwinds — he and Van Swall are lively storytellers — is the history of outdoor cinema in Schoharie, where his family goes back eight generations, and where the first openair American movie screening occurred in 1917.
They love typewriters: a QWERTY Festival is held each year on the grounds, and a couple of manuals are on display in the snack bar. They love anything analog and old-school: Tucked against a far wall, topped with a vintage projector, is a “WHY FI” shelf stashed with trivia books and encyclopedias. (Nope, no public Wi-fi.)
They love local businesses, local people, local quirk. They love being open to new and occasionally crazy ideas. The first year they screened “Jaws,” someone asked: “Oh, should I bring my boat”? The couple said sure. The next year, more folks arrived with watercraft, and boats at “Jaws” became a thing. “You know,” Van Swall said, laughing, “you can’t bring a boat to an AMC movie theater.”
For a “Shaun the Sheep” screening, a contingent of sheep visited from Heather Ridge Farm in Preston Hollow for a pre-show petting zoo. When the movie started, its woolly characters started bleating on screen — “and all of a sudden, from the trailer we hear maaaaa, maaaaaaa, maaaaaaa,” Van Swall said. The call-and-response between animated and actual sheep continued for the duration. “We stayed for the whole movie,” recalled Carol Clement of Heather Ridge. “We loved it. The sheep loved it.”
No live chorus of apes accompanied “King Kong” at the Greenville, but the protagonist growled on cue. Fay Wray screamed, then screamed, then screamed again. Laughter erupted at some of the more dated bits (“Women can’t help bein’ a bother!”). Whoops erupted at a kiss. A shaft of light from the projection booth shot through the darkness, cutting a clear night dappled with fireflies and stars.
Up at the bar and in concessions, moviegoers found sustenance in locally sourced items. A participant in the state’s Taste NY program, the Greenville offers potatoes from Long Island, beer from Chatham, wine from Millbrook, fudge from Middleburgh, root-beer syrup from Heather Ridge (it also shows up in a Boot Rear cocktail) and ice cream from down the road at 2 Twisted Ladies.
“It’s the only drive-in where you think you’re going to see hot dogs on a spit,” Gross remarked, “but what you really get is hot dogs with kimchee” — from Flowerkraut, a f loral-and-sauerkraut shop in Hudson.
Grimm and Van Swall had been living in New York City when, in 2008, they bought a house in Preston Hollow, moving up full-time in 2015. When they first saw the Greenville, dormant after an off-and-on struggle to stay open by several owners over several years, they realized it didn’t need much to be returned to a functioning drive-in — a digital projector, mainly. An updated FM receiver. Money to mow a sprawling 15 acres at a rare, all-grass drive-in.
A Kickstarter campaign raised more than $22,000 — and early on, someone showed up with a brush hog and helped clear the field. Someone else pitched in with a new fridge, and neighbors helped put up a tent. The community involvement continues and goes both ways, with the Greenville hosting forums on foster care and the opioid crisis.
Beyond that, Van Swall said, they just want people to feel at ease. “That is something that is very important to both of us — everyone is welcome here. I mean everyone.” Added Grimm: “And everyone’s got a cool story.”
“They’re so good at connecting with people — both of them,” said Eric Molbach of Claverack, who runs the QWERTY Festival. “How can you not love them?” Said Durfee, the guitarist: “They’re embedded in the community.” What’s more, he said, “Dwight makes a mean drink.”
Sometime after 10 p.m., the outraged ape started tearing through the streets of New York City. He grabbed a woman in bed and dropped her out the window, and as she fell to the street, flailing wildly, a voice from a car yelled: “Ahhhhhh!”
Thundering swells of brass drifted into the snack bar, where Van Swall was beginning to sweep up. Occasionally she and her husband will crash in an Airstream, parked out back — an Airbnb, once they’ve hooked up the plumbing. Guests will watch movies from bed.
They hosted a wedding, once, and folks spent the night. Someday they’d like to open up the drive-in to camping — why not, they figure. Down the line, they envision Tesla charging stations for electric cars — again, why not. Cars are parked for two hours anyway. As for next year’s opening weekend, they’re thinking “Lawrence of Arabia,” maybe. With a full orchestra, possibly. Yet another why not.
“We have all these ideas and things,” Grimm said. “And some get done quicker than others.”
Sometimes, they tire of all the talk — always and everywhere — of the failing drive-in. Every now and then, a friend forwards them some article eulogizing its past glories and predicting its end. Sure, they say, the industry is struggling. Sure, there are easier ways to generate income. “There are 1,000 other ways that we could be making money that would be better and easier than running a drive-in . . . . It has to be profitable and sustainable. But at the same time we’re running it because it’s joyful,” Grimm said.
Almost 70 moviegoers attended that night — maybe 30 or so cars. Not bad for an 85-yearold flick; a big night is 150 to 200 people. “Finding Dory” pulled in 250, but they made more from the 90 who showed up for “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
A few minutes before 11 p.m., strafed by planes and defeated, King Kong fell from the Empire State Building.
Applause scattered across the grassy field. Doors slammed. Cars started. A few stragglers hit the bathrooms and wandered into concessions to return a boom-box, say good night or chat about “Kong” (“They don’t make ’em like they used to!”). And the owners did their final tidying up.
“This was a nice night,” Grimm declared, after the last had left.
“This was a nice night,” Van Swall agreed.
The first year they screened “Jaws,” someone asked: “Oh, should I bring my boat”? The couple said sure. The next year, more folks arrived with watercraft, and boats at “Jaws” became a thing. “You know,” Van Swall said, laughing, “you can’t bring a boat to an AMC movie theater.”
Greenville Drive-in screens many classic movies.
the grounds at the Greenville drive-in open two hours before show time and people come early to picnic and visit before the movie starts. the Greenville, a participant in the state’s taste ny program, offers locally sourced food and drinks at the concession.
dwight Grimm works in the projection booth at the Greenville drive-in.