Changing technology threatens South County landmark

Published on: August 11, 2011

MItch Traphagen Photo

MItch Traphagen Photo


RUSKIN — Digital technology has been a boon for music and movie lovers. Now, with the mere click of a button, thousands of movies are as close as your computer through services such as Netflix or pay-per-view on your television. While movie producers have struggled with the illegal copying of movies, the technology has also saved them money. Beginning in 2013, movies will be distributed to theaters as digital files rather than in the form of 35mm film. The files are much cheaper to produce and are far easier to distribute.

For a South County landmark, however, it may also mean the end of a long road. The Ruskin Drive-In, one of few drive-ins remaining in the nation, is scrambling to raise the estimated $150,000 necessary to convert from their current decades-old film projection system to a state-of-the-art digital version. Theater owners Ted and Karen Freiwald are not seeking handouts, but they are looking to the community to help keep South County’s only theater alive. And they hope to reach their $150,000 goal one t-shirt at a time.

Just about the time the Ruskin Drive-In opened for the first time in the late 1950s, drive-in theaters were nearing their peak, with more than 4,000 large screens dotting the American landscape. Today, less than 400 remain, mostly in Florida and other southern states. According to Ted Freiwald, only three have successfully made the change to digital technology, and one of them, for reasons unknown, has since converted back to film. That leaves just two theaters in America ready for the change to digital, a short 18 months away.

Nearly eight decades after the first drive-in opened in 1933 with the slogan “The whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are,” the Ruskin Drive-In still holds true to a family-friendly tradition. It is one of South Hillsborough’s largest and most economical family-oriented entertainment venues. Whether it makes the short list of theaters to survive the digital conversion remains an unknown.

The final Harry Potter movie is playing on the screen as the storm clouds from summer squalls move out. In front of the projection booth, two young women sit on top of the back seat of an open convertible making for an iconic image in an iconic place. Inside the snack bar, young children look at the candy offerings with the seriousness of bankers looking at a pile of cash. Their parents chat amongst each other. The snack bar clears out when the movie begins, although some children still prefer to run to this place or that in favor of seeing Harry Potter defeat the Dark Lord. The movie is about magic, but the real magic is within the expansive fenced confines of the theater. In many ways, it is like stepping back in time, a time when people were happy and good to each other.

“You can see how people treat each other in the theater,” said owner Ted Freiwald. “People seem to treat each other better in here. I don’t know why. The atmosphere here has totally changed since 2004, and it was good before. It’s not just how they treat the theater itself, but it’s also how they treat each other.”

Two first-run movies are $5 for an adult ticket and $1 for children, making the Ruskin Drive-In one of the most economical entertainment venues in South Hillsborough. Prices in the snack bar are also reminiscent of times past, with a hot dog, hamburger, pizza, popcorn, or soda available for just a few bucks. Ticket sales help in getting a shot at first-run movies, but the concession stand keeps the theater in business. Concession prices are kept low to make it competitive and affordable, but the money from ticket sales alone isn’t enough to keep the theater open.

Despite the pressure to raise money, Ted and Karen Freiwald have no intention of changing anything. They understand that times are tough for many people, especially families. They understand what the theater means to people across the area. Like other drive-in theater owners, their business could be closed down easily enough. Ted and Karen work overtime to ensure that won’t happen.

“I’m going on 79-years-old. We could be out doing other things, but we want to stay here,” Ted said. “Karen, with her booth experience, could keep the Ruskin Drive-In open for many more years with film format and probably hold prices at 2011 levels.”

But that isn’t possible. Movie distributors will be fully converted to digital by 2013. To raise the funds needed to convert to digital, the Ruskin Drive-In is selling t-shirts for $16.50. They hope to sell 15,000 of them to make the conversion possible.

“Today people have way more on their plates with the economy,” Ted said. “If people want to give donations, instead just take some t-shirts to sell. I want to give people some quality for their money. If they have a good t-shirt they can wear out in public, they’ve got something for their money. People have a tremendous amount of money to spend just getting their kids to school.”

Converting to digital is more than just buying a new projector — film and computers are two vastly different things. In addition to a new projector, a new projector booth must be built closer to the screen. That booth must be air-conditioned and dust-free to protect the computers. Additionally, connecting to their traditional speaker stands and FM radio broadcasting system will present challenges. In addition, there are questions surrounding the new equipment itself. With only two theaters in the world successfully converted, there is little in the way of field-testing.

“There is more reasonably priced equipment available to go digital,” Ted said. “I, with other theatre owners, have looked at the quality and found that there is a very high probability that such equipment would not last over 3 to 4 years. If the Ruskin Drive-In is to continue in business, we need to have the best equipment available. Also, these companies are all start-ups and may not be around for a long time. Christies, Barco, Texas Instruments, Sony and Strong have all been around 50 years or more, and have good reputations for backing up their products and having adequate parts on hand for repairs.”

As anyone with a computer knows, electronics can and do fail.

Mitch Traphagen Photo“Two of the motherboards in digital projectors cost $9000 each,” Ted continued. “The light bulbs with a 500 hour life cost $1600 each; our bulbs [for the film projector] are under $700 and last from 5,000 to a high of over 10,000 hours. The lowest quote on the lenses alone is $8,800. I’ve had people tell me the lenses have to be made in Germany and can run as high as $30,000.”

Such prices could cause anyone to wonder about the value in return. For Ted and Karen Freiwald, they know the value. They see it in the faces of the children and their parents. To them, it is priceless. So much so that when floodwaters damaged the theater a few years back, they sold their home to pay for repairs and they told no one but their closest friends. To them, to the families and couples who come to enjoy a night at the area’s only remaining theater, it was worth it. It still is.

The first of the evening’s two movies begins. The teenage girls in the convertible are dancing outside of their car. Ted smiles and waves at them from the projection booth. This is a good and safe place. While Harry Potter waves his wand, the real magic is inside this theater. There is something special here. He hopes it will continue to be special even after he’s gone. Fifteen thousand t-shirts can help to make that happen.

Ruskin Drive-In t-shirts are available in the concession stand of the drive-in and at Bette’s Tip to Toe Salon in Ruskin. For more information visit, call (813) 645-1455, or email