Running a successful drive-in theater in the 21st century requires a certain set of conditions, including a good location and a dedicated staff. Judy Drive-in, located in Mt. Sterling, has both.
“It’s just magic,” says Chris Erwin, manager of the Judy Drive-in. “One of the first memories I can recall of showing movies to people was in third grade I brought my dad’s home movie projector and showed some Mickey Mouse cartoons for show and tell,” says Erwin “I just remembered how good that felt, entertaining people, making people happy, and I get to do it on a weekly basis in the summer.”
Judy Drive-in has been in continuous operation since it was built in 1952. Erwin says that it has had around five different owners, but it’s always been an independent, mom-and-pop operation. Today, Erwin and his wife are in charge. Their young daughter Cecilia is already getting in on the family business, selling lemon shake-ups during special events.
In order to have a successful drive-in theater, Erwin says that the location has to be close enough to town that people are willing to make the drive, but far enough that development doesn’t encroach on the spot. Light pollution from nearby cities or towns detracts from the picture on an outdoor screen, so being somewhat remote, like Judy’s location in Mt. Sterling, is beneficial.
“It’s quiet. It makes you feel like yesteryear,” says employee Elizabeth Day. “Everything is so fast-paced now. Everything’s on the computer. Everybody’s got their face in their phones, and this is just a time to chill out.”
Longtime patron and Mt. Sterling resident Aleia Adkins agrees that the necessary slower pace of the drive-in is part of the appeal. “To get a good spot you have to come early which means spending a couple of hours with your family waiting for the movie to come on,” she says. “You eat, roll around in the grass, spend family time.”
But drive-in theater operators do have to keep up with the times to maintain a thriving business. Erwin makes sure to get first-run movies, and opens them with their national release dates.
“You can’t really make it off nostalgia,” he says. “I couldn’t show Grease or American Graffiti every week, even though those are great movies and I love them, and our audience loves them. You have to have current product to pull in that new client.”
Judy Drive-in also takes pride in its concession stand, which is more than just enticing popcorn—although that is a popular offering on the menu.
“We take our food service very seriously,” Erwin says. “We eat here too. This is what we feed our family, so it has to be the highest quality. We serve everybody else like we serve our own family. It’s made with love.”
That balance of location, new movies with a hint of nostalgia, and homemade touches in the concession stand, make Judy Drive-in a beloved part of the Mt. Sterling community.
“People have always supported it, and here we are,” says Erwin. “It’s still magic and I still get butterflies. And I’ll still do it as long as I still feel that way.”
This segment originally appeared as part of Kentucky Life episode #2405 which originally aired on November 3, 2018. Watch the full episode.