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One Ohio community’s fight to save their drive-in theater

A big screen stands above a parking lot of cars. A scene from Grease with Danny leaning into Sandy in a car at a drive-thru.
Kendall Crawford
The Ohio Newsroom
"Grease" played at one of Parkside Drive-In's community nights this month in Oregon. A group of locals are fundraising to keep the drive-in movie theater open.

As the sun sets on a Wednesday night in September, the sky in Oregon, a suburb of Toledo, is still flooded with light. It is community night at Parkside Drive-In and engines rumble in anticipation of tonight’s feature, “Grease.”

The Parkside Drive-in opened in Oregon in 1949. It’s hung on through tornadoes and recessions and several name changes. Last year, it was hit with another challenge: The drive-in’s lease on the land it sits on expired. The owners announced they wouldn’t renew it.

That stunned community members, like Jennifer Beaver, who saw the drive-in as part of what made Oregon special.

“This little area used to have eight drive-ins,” Beaver said. “And this is the last one.”

In the 1960s, Ohio was home to nearly 200 drive-in theaters. All but 24 of those have shuttered. Beaver and other drive-in movie theater evangelists are fighting to make sure their beloved community drive-in isn’t next.

An oasis of memories

Beaver used to work part-time at the drive-in, where she managed the concession stand to save up money for her wedding. She fell in love with the fun atmosphere.

“We get used to, in this area, having one. But if you talk to people from other areas that don't have one, they've never experienced it. And I really would have hated to see this place bulldozed into storage units or something,” she said.

Buckets of popcorn sit on a shelf.
Kendall Crawford
The Ohio Newsroom
The Parkside Drive-In offers concessions for its outdoor movie screenings.

So, when she heard the news that it would be closing its doors, she couldn’t sit back and watch. She started a nonprofit in July of 2022, called “Save Our Screen,” dedicated to keeping it open.

She took over the drive- in’s operations, started collecting donations and assembled volunteers like Scott Jaegly. He saw his first movie here in 1978 when he was just nine years old. He’s a film buff, but he also just loves the way the drive-in makes him feel. The smell of popcorn blowing in the breeze steeps him in nostalgia.

“If you want to travel back in time, you come to the drive-in. That's going to take you back to a time when things were a lot simpler and a lot better,” Jaegly said.

Something special

It’s not just locals that come to Parkside. Tonight, someone drove all the way from Texas to watch “Grease.” Beaver said its ability to attract visitors from across the country is another reason to preserve the theater.

“Ohio is one of the major places left where there is a drive-in,” Beaver said. “The majority of them are in New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio.”

A large screen shows Danny Zuko smoking a cigarette. Cars are parked, facing the screen.
Kendall Crawford
The Ohio Newsroom
The Parkside Drive-In is just one of 24 drive-in movie theaters across the state.

Beaver said she thinks this spot is the perfect place for the first National Drive-In Museum. She wants Ohio to be at the epicenter of preserving this slice of Americana.

“A lot of times when a place like this closes, everything gets scrapped. Nobody's saving that stuff,” Beaver said.

To do that, though, they have to own the land. Beaver’s negotiated a deal with the landowners to keep the theater open through next summer. But, the organization needs to raise just over a million dollars to buy it outright.

The future 

Until then, Beaver and her team will continue to show movies and take the orders of the influx of customers that line up each week for pizza, popcorn and pretzels. Beaver’s daughter, Piper, now manages concessions, just like her mom did years ago.

A young woman in a bandana stands behind a counter. Across the counter, a woman looks up at a menu with her hands on her hips.
Kendall Crawford
The Ohio Newsroom
Piper Beaver runs concessions at Parkside Drive-In. She's working with her mom to find ways to save the movie theater.

When she’s not buttering popcorn, the sixteen-year-old is thinking up ideas on how to bring more people to Parkside. She said she doesn’t want to be the last generation to see movies under the stars.

“I want to create an attraction,” Piper said. “I want to make a very, very popular drive-in. And make our own kind of mark on the drive-in world.”

To Piper, drive-ins aren’t a thing of the past. They’re her future, and she doesn’t want to see them left in the rearview mirror.

Kendall Crawford is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently worked as a reporter at Iowa Public Radio.