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Winter Drive-In Is Closing After More Than 50 Years in Wintersville

Photo by Warren Scott The Winter Drive-In soon will be closing its doors.

WINTERSVILLE — After entertaining movie lovers throughout the Ohio Valley for more than 50 years, the screens at the Winter Drive-In will go dark for good.

Owner Ross Falvo said after being on the market for several years, the 16½-acre lot has been sold to a business with other plans for it.

Falvo referred questions about that to Joe Luckino of Cedar One Realty, who said a multimillion-dollar industrial development that will bring 30 new jobs to the area is slated for that property.

Falvo said the decision to sell was spurred by economic factors and current conditions in the film industry.

He said increased access to new films from one’s home has resulted in a decline in business. “Streaming does have an effect on it. There’s no question about it,” he said, adding, “I think the audience is altogether different.”

Falvo said patronage has shifted from teens and young adults, who made drive-ins popular date destinations in the 1950s and 1960s, to grandparents and parents bringing children because they want to share the drive-in theater experience.

While it’s not been enough to ensure the Winter Drive-In’s future, Falvo said he’s happy to have been a part of that family experience and for all who have patronized the business through the years.

“There were a lot of people who supported us and I thank them tremendously,” he said.

Falvo said some regulars helped the drive-in through setbacks imposed by COVID-19.

With a lack of new films available for the summer, the Winter Drive-In resorted to showing old favorites.

He said though the pandemic has ended in many places, film studios are releasing their new product cautiously.

“What they’re doing is holding back the blockbusters for a later date,” said Falvo, who added that resulted in the Winter Drive-In cutting its days from seven to five.

He said while business dropped before and during the pandemic, the cost of running a drive-in or other theater has risen. Falvo said many people don’t know 50% to 60% of each admission paid by theatergoers goes to the companies that distribute the films.

He acknowledged at the same time that his and other small theater businesses have needed to invest in digital projectors and other equipment to conform with changes in film technology.

“There’s no question the movies now are technologically better than they’ve ever been due to advancements in digital video and sound,” said Falvo.

He said, in 2017, a substantial investment was made for digital projection equipment with some financial support from the community. A fourth screen also was added in more recent years to boost business.

Wednesday’s final night will feature a mix of first-run and recently released films. “F9: The Fast Saga” and “Nobody” will be shown on screen No. 1. “Peter Rabbit 2” and “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” will play on screen No. 2, and “Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” and “Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard” will play on screen No. 3.

Falvo said like many other local businesses, the Winter Drive-In has been impacted by a waning economy.

“Let’s face it. The Steubenville-Wintersville area has been hit very hard by the decline in the steel industry,” he said.

“It’s a nice area. It’s a shame the economic conditions it was hit with.”

The shuttering of drive-in theaters also is part of a national trend.

The first drive-in theater is said to have opened in Camden, N.J., in 1933. Prior to that, there were outdoor theaters but none where attendees watched from their vehicles.

By the 1950s, there were thousands. According to various sources, about 330 remain in the U.S.

Opened in 1969, the Winter Drive-In was one of at least nine that operated in Jefferson, Brooke or Hancock counties.

Others were the Hilltop Drive-In in Chester, which is still in business; Airport Drive-In in Short Creek, Bell-Air Drive-In in Weirton, Blue Moon Drive-In in Wellsburg, Family Drive-In in Toronto, Ohio Valley Drive-In in Follansbee, Sunset Drive-In at the Steubenville-Wintersville line and Riverside Drive-In in Richmond.

Based in Pittsburgh, Falvo has operated indoor and outdoor theaters for many years and the Wintersville location is the last of his drive-ins. A lover of a variety of films, he said the western “The Magnificent Seven” may have been the first movie he saw at a drive-in theater.

Winter Drive-In has entertained many area residents, its role in the community has gone beyond summer nights. Falvo said he has photos from the trunk-or-treat events held there, with prizes going to the best decorated vehicles as well as best costumes. Many flocked to the drive-in around Halloween to view the theater’s annual horror movie marathon.

The Winter Drive-In also teamed with the Ohio Valley Jeep Alliance for First Responder Appreciation Days, when area emergency personnel were admitted free and other patrons got to see emergency vehicles up close.

Flea markets were another staple of the facility.

Falvo said a lot of people, including many students, have been employed by the drive-in.

“There have been a lot of nice people working there,” he said.

Falvo reiterated his appreciation to the drive-in’s many visitors over the years.

“We appreciate the customers and want to thank them for their support and hope the tri-state area can come back strong economically for the small, independent businesses,” he said.

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