Each night during the mid-1910s, teenaged projectionist Charles Watzke Sr. sat in a small room overlooking a darkened theater, manning a pair of 35-millimeter projectors with each holding its own reel containing roughly 25 minutes of film. As the audience in the theater below watched the black-and-white movies, Watzke carefully surveyed the upper right corner of the large screen for a flashing mark.
Reacting to the signal, he would start up the motor on a second projector in preparation for a scene change. On alert, Watzke waited for the precise moment to act. As the transition approached, practiced hands activated the light and sound of the second projector and turned off the first projector in barely more than a second—initiating the second roll of film to keep the movie playing seamlessly.
Sometime after Watzke’s son, Charles Watzke Jr., took up his father’s craft and became a projectionist, theaters evolved to using large platters containing enough film to make switching unnecessary. Watzke’s grandson, John Watzke, remembers his grandfather calling the invention “the end of projectionists.”
“It used to be at some larger theaters that you needed about four people to run all the various projectors,” Watzke says. “With the invention of platters, you only needed one person manning the projection room. My grandfather said now three people at every theater would be out of a job, and he proved to be right.”
Job-security risks from advancing technology were far from the only danger that early projectionists faced. Until the 1950s, film reels were made from nitrate stock, which left the film highly flammable. If a film reel broke while the projector was running and a projectionist failed to react quickly enough, the film could quickly set the entire room ablaze. As an added hazard, projection rooms contained metal shutters designed to close in reaction to the heat of a fire to keep it contained, and a projectionist could become trapped if they did not escape the room quickly enough when a fire broke out.
“My grandfather told me a story about a projector that caught fire on him one evening,” John Watzke says. “Apparently he managed to make it to the shutter just before it closed and mostly got through, but his foot got caught inside at the last second. Another employee had to come running and pull him free before they could get away.”
Despite the tribulations that came with it, film and theater became the longstanding Watzke family business and shifted from conventional theaters to drive-in movie theaters, which John Watzke passionately pursues to this day. Now, however, his grandson is reviving the family tradition and creating theater jobs once again on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast.
‘Born and Raised’ in Drive-ins
Though he grew up in Ocala, Fla., and was originally born John Watzke in New Orleans, La., he instead describes himself as having been “born and raised” in drive-in movie theaters. His grandfather, Charles Watzke, began working as a projectionist in 1913 to support his family after his own father died when he was 13 years old.
The elder Watzke went on to become one of the founders of the Projectioners Union in New Orleans in 1918 and remained in the business until his eventual retirement. His son, Charles Watzke Jr., followed in his footsteps and took a job as a projectionist and engineer for Gulf State Theaters. Watching his father at work instilled a love of drive-ins in Watzke as well as his brother, Charles Watzke III.
“When we were kids, my brother and I would go with our dad from one state to another helping out with the equipment at all sorts of theaters,” Watzke says. “I wanted to learn all about how to build projectors, how to repair them and how to operate them. By the time I was 10 years old, I already knew how to operate a 35-millimeter projector on my own.”
Unfortunately for Watzke, the very company his father had worked for ultimately played a heavy role in largely bringing an end to drive-ins across most of the southern United States. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Gulf State Theaters held a monopoly on drive-ins in the region, owning nearly 300 theaters with the exception of a small handful whose owners refused to sell.
By 1978, GST shut down every theater it owned and converted the properties into shopping centers, apartment complexes and other buildings. The closures brought an end to numerous historical drive-ins along the Gulf Coast, including the Don Drive-in in Biloxi, Miss.; the Jeff, Airline and Westgate Drive-ins in Metairie, La.; the Tiger Drive-in in Slidell, La.; and the St. Bernard Drive-in in Arabi, La.
Watzke now plans to make use of his expertise in drive-in theaters to bring this element of cinematic history back to the Gulf Coast with the construction of his own independently operated drive-in in Bay St. Louis, Miss.
‘Dinner and a Movie for Less’
Located on Highway 90 Frontage Road just past the buffer zone for the Stennis Space Center on the outskirts of Bay St. Louis, Watzke’s as-of-yet unnamed theater occupies a 10-acre plot of land that previously housed the Evergreen Trailer Park. The land has sat empty since Hurricane Katrina destroyed the trailer park in 2005.
Watzke plans to install one 60-by-34-foot screen suspended 45 feet in the air above the lot by March or April 2023 and a second screen within at least two years of the first. Watzke will screen two movies per night using a 4k digital cinema projector with an admission fee of $6 for adults and $3 for children. Kids who are 5 years old or younger enter for free.
The theater will also have an accompanying arcade and a concession stand, which will serve not only the classics like drinks, popcorn and candy, but also burgers, pizza, chicken wings, muffaletts, po-boys, catfish platters and more dishes.
“The idea is to offer up ‘dinner and a movie’ for less than half the price you’d likely pay at a walk-in movie theater,” Watzke says. “At a regular theater you might be looking at $12 tickets for adults and $10 tickets for children, and that’s only for one movie. I want to not only show all the latest new-release movies, but give people a unique experience at an affordable price.”
Overcoming Challenges, ‘Making Memories’
Though the theater Watzke is constructing in Bay St. Louis is his latest project, the entrepreneur has made other efforts in the past to facilitate a resurgence of drive-ins in the South. His first attempt at reopening a drive-in was the Star Theater in Covington, La., in the late 1990s. The effort ultimately proved to be short-lived when the location’s proximity to downtown Covington and a lack of sufficient parking spaces led to poor attendance.
Years later, after moving back to Ocala, Fla., from Bay St. Louis in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Watzke found himself reminiscing about drive-in theaters while working as a maintenance supervisor for a local condominium. Upon returning home he searched the internet for a list of local drive-ins that had closed over the years and was surprised to discover that one property, the Ocala Drive-in, was still standing, albeit in bad condition. The theater had originally opened in 1948 and closed down in 2007.
Watzke managed to track down the owner of the property, who was based out of Chicago, and worked out a deal to purchase and renovate the theater. His brother, Charlie Watzke III, assisted with the renovation efforts, and together the brothers managed to reopen the theater in July 2011.
The Ocala has since met success, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which brought on an increased interest in drive-ins as a socially distanced moviegoing option. Watzke says that in the first days of the Ocala reopening, his clientele largely consisted of older people coming in for nostalgia’s sake with their grandchildren in tow, but now he regularly sees entire families driving in from as far as two hours outside of Ocala.
Watzke’s time with the Ocala theater taught him a number of lessons about successfully running a drive-in that are applicable to his upcoming Bay St. Louis venture, including how to tackle obstacles such as inclement weather, mosquitoes and fire ants, and ongoing concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic.
One strategy he is carrying over to his new Bay St. Louis theater helped him circumvent the challenge that came from moviegoers attempting to bring their own food into the drive-in. Due to the low ticket prices Watzke offers for two films per night, ticket sales make up only about 20% of his revenue at the Ocala. Visitors not purchasing food from the concession stand posed a tremendous financial risk, and Watzke spent a great deal of time thinking up how to address it while also providing his customer base with a cost-effective service.
As a solution, Watzke began requiring guests to purchase a food voucher for the concession stand alongside their tickets, with single guests required to purchase a $5 voucher and groups required to purchase a $10 voucher.
“Even with the voucher, you’re still paying way less than you would be for buying enough tickets for two separate movies at a walk-in theater, plus what they charge for concessions,” Watzke says. “Of course, I’m confident our extensive menu will have visitors coming back for more even after they’ve used their vouchers.”
Ultimately, Watzke’s goal is to bring affordable entertainment to Bay St. Louis. He says that he hopes his theaters will leave behind a legacy of providing families and groups of friends with a chance to make lifelong memories together.
“If you ask anyone from my generation about a movie they saw at a drive-in, I can almost guarantee they can tell you not only the movie they saw, but where they saw it, what vehicle they were in and who they were with,” Watzke says.
“A drive-in movie is something that you do for the sake of a unique experience, of making a memory rather than just going to an overpriced movie. It’s like a family outing or a tailgate party. I’ve always been passionate about drive-ins, and honestly it’s something you need to have passion for.”