Poughkeepsie Overlook Drive-In: One of New York’s Last Drive-Ins

Overlook Drive In

Photo: By Michele Hassinger (Michele Hassinger) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

For many residents of Dutchess and Putnam Counties, summer isn’t officially summer until they’ve had a night out at the Overlook Drive-In located at 126 Degarmo Road, between Routes 44 and 55 in Poughkeepsie. Its huge screen, 110 feet wide and 6 stories tall, is the largest drive-in movie screen in the entire tri-state area. The theater’s location on 12 rural acres makes it the perfect place to relive old memories of going to the drive-in movie theater while making new ones. For three years in a row, the Overlook has been voted “Best in the Hudson Valley” and the legacy of this family business has been the topic of news articles and documentary films.

I had the pleasure of speaking on the phone about some of those memories with Charles Smith, who works as the Overlook’s manager. He wears many hats on his job at both the Overlook Drive-In and the “sister” theater at Hyde Park. Mr. Smith’s voice was friendly and charming, a real “radio” voice. That talent comes in handy as he also makes announcements on the loud speakers, at both theaters and does promotions for the drive-ins, with Dawn Markling, the company’s Marketing Coordinator. Charles Smith is a close, longtime friend of the owners, the Cohen family. Mr. Smith grew up with the movie theater life, as his own family also owned and operated theaters in nearby Ulster county. Mr. Smith spoke with great warmth and enthusiasm about the Overlook’s and, of course, the Hyde Park Drive-In. He really could not talk of one without mentioning the other. The pride he takes in being a part of both theaters is evident.

The story begins and remains about the Cohen Family. In 1949, Sid and Ida Cohen, independent theater owners expanded their family business by opening the Hyde Park Drive-In Theatre. Then, in 1955, they added Poughkeepsie’s Overlook Drive-In Theater, As the theaters were family owned and operated, Fred and Barbara Cohen took over the Overlook’s management. They hit the drive-in customer market at the height of its popularity, and the Overlook Drive-In joined the Hyde Park Drive-In, providing the latest films in a relaxed comfortable venue.

Going to the Overlook Drive-In is like taking a trip back in time. Don’t try to whip out your Visa at the ticket booth, as it’s cash only. You can, however, use Visa or Mastercard at the snack bar. And oh, what a snack bar:—tons of popcorn plus old time items like funnel cake, Angus Beef burgers, pizza and fries! They also have a great soft drink beverage selection including ice cold Yoo-Hoo! For those who don’t remember Yoo-Hoo, it’s a smooth chocolate drink that is the perfect compromise between an egg cream and a milkshake. Baseball legend Yogi Berra was the popular Yoo-Hoo spokesman during the 1940s and 50s. You can bring in your own food to the Overlook Drive-In, but with the great selection at the snack bar, why would you ever want to? All the food is high quality and reasonably priced. They have speakers set up at the snack stand so that if your family sends you off with a big order, you won’t miss any of the movie.

The parking space holds up to 760 cars. Long gone are the individual hook-on speakers, as too often they were stolen and are now outdated due to technology. Many Drive-Ins including the Overlook now broadcast the sound over a radio station. You just pull in and tune your car radio to 87.9FM, relax and enjoy the show. If you don’t have a car radio, or if you are worried about a weak battery going dead, no problem. You can bring your own portable radio, or you can rent one at the projection area. You just have to hand over $20 and your ID so they can be sure to get the radio back after the double feature. The Overlook’s FAQ page, http://hydeparkdrivein.com/overlook/faqs.html#gen7, even says they will help you out if your car battery dies in their parking lot—now that’s a 1950’s style neighborly touch! In many ways, time seems to stand still at the Overlook Drive-In where a family run business has collected the affection and respect of their clientele in addition to admission dollars and snack money.

One of the challenges experienced by the Overlook Drive-In had been the conversion of film to digital form. A poignant 2012 documentary that aired on PBS Channel 13, http://www.thirteen.org/reel13/shorts/overlook-drive-theater/, showed the struggles faced by the Overlook Drive-In to keep providing an old fashioned drive-in movie experience in a tech savvy world. It used to take a certain touch of finesse and precision to run a movie projector. Now the job requires skills more in line with computer tech support. In fact, films can no longer be procured on strips to load in projectors, they are all packaged in encased hard drives and require digital equipment to show them.

The Overlook Drive-In invested in a computerized media setup but lost their valued projectionist, named Helge Bernhardt, who had years of experience running films at both indoor movie venues and at the Overlook Drive-In. Throughout the short film, Fred Cohen appears. A silver-haired man with a winning smile, Fred talks about the family business with affection and pride. The best shot of the film shows Fred with Barbara, his pretty wife, arms around each other, waving at the camera together. Sadly, Fred Cohen died shortly after the documentary was filmed. Now his widow, Barbara, and Barry and Carol Horowitz carry on the family legacy. Carol is Fred’s sister so the business is still family run, with the trusty help such as manager Charles Smith, who knew the Cohen family since he was a kid. Most of their key staff members return year after year and the operation has a real “family” feel. Charles was instrumental in helping the Cohen’s usher the Cohen’s drive-ins into the digital age. The Cohens were forced to go digital or go under. Family owned businesses, in general, have had it rough over the decades; however, the Cohen family have never lost heart and are continuing to provide the best movie entertainment bang for the buck in the area, according to their devoted customers.

Mr. Smith is also well versed in running the old school type of movie projector and told me that each reel of film would extend to about a mile long. He says that kids would love to take a tour of the projection room and the staff would demonstrate how the equipment worked, and the kids thought it was magic! It was a hard decision for the Cohen family to go digital, but they purchased a Barco Digital Projector. Charles Smith also knows a lot about digital projectors and said it takes a lot of power to send 7,000 watts of light to the screen. He said he was sad to see the old spools of film go the way of history. The days of feeding the loops into the projector and splicing film on the cutting room floor are gone.

The fact that the Overlook Drive-In (as well as the Hyde Park Drive-In) has stayed open all of these years is impressive. In the 1950’s there were over 4,000 drive-in theaters in operation—now there are only 340 left. Mr. Smith has a wonderful treasure trove of stories about how the theater has served customers throughout the decades. One of the funniest anecdotes he tells took place in the 1980’s when folks started owning VCR’s. Some customers who arrived late would ask him if he could just “rewind” the movie, so they could see what they missed. It’s keeping a sense of humor through changing times and lots of hard work that keeps the drive-in going as times progress. The Cohen family owns the land of the Overlook, so they can rent it out for special events like weddings. Last year, Mr. Smith had the idea to hold an adoption fair before the theaters screening of “The Secret Life of Pets.” Three pets found families to love them that night, so he’s eager to do it again.

Back in the 1950s family station wagons were low, sleek and slim. With today’s tall hatchbacks and SUV’s, it’s important to keep others in mind when enjoying the show. The Overlook says you can “back in” and open your hatchback, as long as it does not obstruct the view of other cars. Some park and then picnic in the parking spot in front of their vehicle. There are also picnic tables near the snack bar if your family feels the need to stretch out a bit. You can even bring the dog, as long as he or she is on a leash and does not cause a disturbance. You can do everything but grill there, as they have a no “open flame” policy. You can; however, buy light up mosquito coils to use if the outdoors gets too “buggy.” The Overlook Drive-In can accommodate RV’s and large trailers with a special area to park.

Just mention the Overlook Drive-In and you get lots of memories from friends and family. An old family friend Kathy fondly remembers going with a boyfriend to see “The Godfather” back in 1972. My in-laws who I did not know at the time also frequented the Overlook on family nights. You never forget going to the Overlook. My cousin by marriage Donna, now a woman in her fifties, recalls the fun she had as a little girl, watching the movies out the rear window of her family’s car. A friend from Carmel High School, Lorie, mentioned The Overlook Drive-In on Facebook and soon others were quick to share their experiences as they look forward to spring and another season of fun. There is something curiously postmodern about sharing an experience you’ve had several decades ago and can still enjoy today, just like it was then, on social media.

The Overlook Drive-In chargers per person, not per car—so teenagers can forget the time-honored stunt of trying to see how many guests can be crammed into a compact car. Even so, the prices are quite cheap! The price currently listed on their website is only $10 per Adults, $6 per Children of ages 5 – 11 and best of all, children under 5 years old are admitted free! That’s for two films, not one, as it’s a double feature! Busy couples who want to have a fun night out but don’t want to hire a babysitter have the perfect place to go and relax on spring and summer weekends. The Overlook “season” is predicated on the weather, so it opens each year around the time of the first buds of April until sometime in October each year. Mr. Smith said they want to open in as soon as possible in early April, weather permitting. Eager fans of the Overlook Drive-In cruise by the big marquee sign at 126 Degarmo Road or surf the web wait for the announcement of opening day The Overlook Drive-In’s Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/OverlookDriveIn/, as well as the website and company’s newsletter has everything you need to know about having fun at the Overlook. We all can’t wait for that first announcement that will herald the season’s opening night at the best theater experience in the area, the Overlook Drive-In!

 

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