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Northfield Drive-In confronts expensive digital projector upgrade

Northfield Drive-in projectionist Paul Bader at one of the antique arc-and-carbon projectors.

Northfield Drive-in projectionist Paul Bader at one of the antique arc-and-carbon projectors. Purchase photo reprints »

Opened 65 years ago this Saturday, the drive-in — which is actually mostly over the New Hampshire line — has continued serving up Hollywood blockbusters and buttered popcorn through the decades, as the audience sizes and the number of similar operations have thinned out around the region.

Along the way, Mitchell Shakour, who grew up in the family business his parents bought in 1967, when he was 24, has made improvements to the sound system, which used to come from pole-mounted speakers rather than the car radio, and additions to the snack bar like veggie burgers and veggie dogs along with corn dogs, hamburgers and pizza.

But now Shakour and his wife, who have run the theater since 1978, face the biggest decision they’ve ever had to make about the business, as the motion picture industry demands that he invest close to $200,000 for a digital projection system.

Along with “Smurfs 2,” “The Wolverine” and “Grown Ups 2,” along with movie poster giveaways to celebrate surviving from the days when there 15 times as many drive-ins as there are today, Shakour says this weekend will also be his self-imposed deadline for making an announcement on the future of the business.

And, he says, he’s not sure what that will be.

“Were looking at it seriously,” said Shakour, who has gone to Mendon and Milford, N.H., to see how drive-in operations have made the investments work and plans to visit the Hollywood Drive-in, near Troy, N.Y., on Thursday. “If anything, I’m leaning toward it, and the trip to Troy should be the final straw.”

That’s because, unlike some of the others, the Hollywood is a similar size operation with just a single screen and a similar size crowd on weekends. And the Troy operation had to bring in three-phase power, as Northfield would have to do for the biggest expense, along with providing heat and air-conditioning for what’s now basically a mechanical room.

The Northfield Drive-In is the last of 15 built by Carl Nielman, who also built drive-in theaters just west of Shelburne Falls and in Turners Falls. It was only because the other drive-ins went out of business in the 1980s that Northfield has been able to survive, said Shakour, who also is publisher of the weekly Monadnock Shopper News in Keene, N.H.

“It kind of culled the herd and helped the rest of us,” said Shakour. “We, being the only one, had a little renaissance, and people kind of rediscovered it.” Business has fallen off from the salad days when the drive-in would attract 1,000 cars on a weekend, to fewer than 100 cars last year.

“People are downloading films on their phones, for God’s sake,” said Shakour.

Business was good enough in 1995, when there 11,000 cars over the course of the summer season, that Shakour and his wife decided to open the drive-in on weeknights as well.

The season is limited to the beginning of May to Labor Day, which is when kids have to go back to school and Hollywood’s summer offerings dry up.

The weeknight runs lasted from 1996 to 2004 as business began to slide, and then last year, with a combination of good weather and appealing movies, the Northfield was able to bring in about 7,100 cars, its best year since 2008. This summer has been spoiled by bad weather in May and June, and Shakour says, “Now we’ve got to spend close to $200,000 to stay in business,” even though the digital projection equipment itself probably runs just $65,000 to $70,000.

It might not make sense in purely financial terms, Shakour says, especially since it would be hard to find a bank that would look favorably on a seasonal business investing that kind of money with a less-than glowing future. But there are other possibilities, he said, like showing live Red Sox or Patriots games by satellite, selling advertising, showing older movies on the big screen on off-nights or holding special events in conjunction with the movies. And he’s looking at other ways of raising some of the money, maybe by using an approach like a Kickstarter campaign to get donations.

“I’m kind of debating, because I’m not really comfortable putting that out there,” Shakour said. “I believe a business should work by itself. It’s kind of like begging or running a non-profit.” Shakour says, projectionist Paul Bader, who began learning his trade at the age of 6 from his father and has worked at Northfield for 20 years, has been entertaining customers as much as the movies he throws 200 feet onto the 80-by-40-foot screen, with tours of the arc projector booth that will soon go the way of the Smithsonian Institution. Rather than a bulb, it uses copper-coated carbon rods fed by a high-amperage current, which generate a constant electrical spark, like that of an arc welder. Bader, assisted by his wife, must switch the 20-minute reels on the pair of projectors almost constantly.

If he ultimately decides to go forward with the new projection system, Shakour said, “It will be more of an emotional thing for our family,” whose members help out at the snack bar and the cash register. What helps, he said, is when customers — 80 percent of them traveling for more than 20 miles — tell him how much they love having the nostalgic entertainment form still around.

“We’re leaning,” he says, and then catches himself. “My heart says one thing ... I’ve done this my whole life. My wife says I would probably need a support group if we didn’t go forward. I don’t know what I’d do.”

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