Historic Theater Case Study - 13-24 Drive-In
By John Beeler
IUPUI Department of History
Anyone looking up Wabash, Indiana in any common encyclopedia will quickly discover that the 171 year old town became the first electrically lighted city in the world in 1880. Deeper digging would reveal that the 12,000 person town also contains within its city limits historic Eagles Theater, which opened in 1906, began showing “talkies” in 1929, and today is owned, and operated, by Mike Rembusch. However, just barely outside of town at the intersection of its namesake state roads 13 and 24 is 13-24 Drive-In, and it is arguably as historic as both the Eagles Theater and Wabash’s claim to electrical fame as 13-24 Drive-In is one of the few remaining consistently successful drive-ins in the United States.
Truman Rembusch, Mike’s father, began construction of 13-24 Drive-in 1949 and based the construction and layout of the drive-in on a similar design of another one of Rembusch’s drive-ins in Evansville Indiana. What makes 13-24 Drive-In unique, however, is not its date of birth as it directly parallels the rise of drive-ins in America. In 1946, moviegoers only could choose from 155 drive-in theaters across the United States. By 1948, that number had boomed to 820, and in 1958 it peaked at an astonishing 5,000 total theaters across the United States. However, by the 1990s, the corporate multiplex had almost entirely replaced the drive-in as the moviegoer’s destination. Ironically, 13-24 Drive-In possesses relatively the same number of sister drive-ins as it did when it opened in 1950. What makes 13-24 Drive-In unique, then, is not only that it bravely survived the fallout of the 1980s, but also that it has continued to remain an essential part of the community in Wabash and the surrounding areas. This did not happen by accident.
The management staff at 13-24 Drive-In is well aware of the nostalgia associated with drive-ins. Although the screen and its structure have been replaced, the layout has remained largely unchanged since its inception in 1949. In the early 1990s, the drive-in installed radio transmitters as an alternative to the traditional window hanging speaker. This installation replaced the often poorer quality and mono sound speakers with much clearer stereo sound, and the management believes that this development directly contributed to an increase in attendance. Admission has remained highly competitive to the chained multiplexes and is charged by the person. As is standard with most drive-ins, the admission includes two movies. However, the most important components of 13-24 Drive-In’s success has been the management’s focus on building relationships both internally, with the staff, and externally, with both customers and other businesses.
Internally, the management has sought to create a family atmosphere within the staff. Professionalism is expected, but the management values knowing the staff individually. Moreover, they implicitly attempt to train the staff to serve in a variety of roles within the drive-in. This flexibility allows for an equally as flexible schedule for the employees and suits itself well to the socially demanding work schedule of a theater. This same multi-tasking also means that the staff can adjust and adapt to the weaknesses and strengths of each individual employee.
While the multiplex chains have an established internal network to rely on for commercial relationships and technical emergencies, 13-24 Drive-In has, in a way, mirrored this by seeking to create a support network of external relationships with businesses in the area. For example, when they noticed a large number of customers bringing in pizza, 13-24 Drive-In partnered with the local Pizza Hut to sell its pizza from their concessions stand. Likewise, they have a standing relationship with another nearby drive-in and have, in times of emergency, relied upon them for emergency equipment such as projector bulbs. These kinds of informal, and yet reliable, relationships results in a network that assists in providing the same kind of support that a chained multiplex would find within its own company.
Finally, 13-24 Drive-In is intent on building relationships with its customers. To attract customers to the drive-in, they have traditionally relied on local advertising. However, for the upcoming season they plan on advertising their weekend movie runs in some of the larger cities that surround Wabash and, hopefully, contain people willing to drive so as to experience the theater environment of a drive-in. Since 13-24 Drive-In is not owned by a corporation located in another city, the management has been able to experiment with community-specific events. For example, plans for the upcoming 2004 season include car shows and community BB-Qs. In their attempt to continue catering to the family demographic, they also plan on revitalizing the drive-in’s park, which itself is another part of the traditional drive-in experience. The management has attempted to train their staff to recognize repeat customers and talk conversationally with them once customers are inside the drive-in. Finally, 13-24 Drive-In would rather overstaff their concessions stand on the busy weekend nights so as to make the purchasing of food as easy and quickly as possible.
It is possible that someone could link 13-24 Drive-In’s ability to remain open during the fallout of the drive-in industry to contextual conditions such as town size and location. However, it’s survival owes unquestionably more to the ability of the owners and management to adapt to the changing environment by focusing heavily on relationship building not only with customers but the surrounding community and, in some cases, competing drive-ins. From borrowing and lending bulbs with another drive-in, to playing classic cartoons before the film to bring in families, 13-24 Drive-In has demonstrated a tenacity that could serve as a model to anyone both within the drive-in industry and outside of it.
For Further Information:
Kuenne, Kurt. Drive-In Movie Memories (film). Clips available online at http://www.americandrivein.com/ (Accessed February 2003).
“Drive-Ins Are Making a Comeback.” The Early Show (CBS) August 12, 2003. Available online at
http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2003/08/07/earlyshow/series/main567173.shtml (Accessed January 2003).
Drive-Ins.com: The Definitive Resource for Drive-In Information. Available online at: http://www.drive-ins.com/ (Accessed January 2003).
Roadside Peek: An Adventure in Time. Available online at http://www.roadsidepeek.com/index.htm (Accessed January 2003).