Greenville Drive-in’s fes­tive vibe

The 59-year-old fix­ture a laid-back so­cial hub with old movies and for­ward-think­ing own­ers

Albany Times Union - Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Amy Biancolli

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.

They smiled.

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.”

Pho­tos by Amy Biancolli / Times Union

Greenville Drive-in screens many clas­sic movies.

Pho­tos by Amy Biancolli / times union

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.

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