It's curtains after Labor Day for Flathead's last open-air cinema

COLUMBIA FALLS - The Midway Drive-In will stay open for one more summer, but that's probably it for the venerable Flathead Valley institution.

The giant screen, surrounded by families munching popcorn in their pickup, station wagon or BMW, will flicker to life from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day. The first day of the last season was Friday.

The cost is $10 per carload, up to six people and that's for a double feature. The movies are changed every weekend, but are not usually first-runs, said drive-in manager Steve Singleton. He said the drive-in fills a niche by offering a great deal of family-oriented entertainment.

"If it's Walt Disney and if it's warm out, we sell out," Singleton said.

He was raised on drive-ins and loves the medium. "I was born and raised in Kalispell, so I went to the drive-in a lot as a kid. I just like the freedom," Singleton said.

But it's not all about the family. R-rated movies are also shown occasionally in an attempt at diversity. Movie-goers use their own car stereos for sound by tuning into an FM station and the concession stand also has radios to loan out if need be. The usual concession-stand fare is on sale through the night.

There's room for 230 vehicles at the drive-in, which was built in the late 1950s. There are three drive-in theaters left in Montana right now, including Midway, so soon there will be just two. Missoula's only drive-in closed last year.

The drive-in's hey days were in the 1950s when America's car culture reached its zenith. People used cars to get food and fun, and drive-ins offered both.

The drive-in was invented by Richard M. Hollingshead, who came up with the prototype at his New Jersey home. The first drive-in opened on June 6, 1933.

Hollingshead worked out the details by hanging a sheet to use for a screen in his back yard, then mounted a 1928 Kodak projector on the hood of his car.

He placed a radio behind the screen and then started to test his idea with the windows up, down and in-between. He tested the effects of weather, using a lawn sprinkler to simulate a rainstorm. He even solved the problem of cars seeing over one another by adding ramps to elevate the viewers.

Hollingshead was issued U.S. Patent 1,909,537, but his patented ticket to wealth was later declared invalid by a Delaware District Court.

He didn't get rich, but his idea has become an American tradition that will continue for at least one more year in the Flathead.

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