FRANKLIN, W.Va. — The closed Warner Drive-In theater, fondly remembered as a provider of summer weekend entertainment, combining privacy and family fun, will reopen Sept. 9 with the Disney movie “Finding Dory,” thanks to the fundraising efforts of concerned citizens refusing to lose an American icon.
Gates open at 6 p.m.; the movie starts at dusk.
By the spring of 2017, the Warner Drive-In Cultural & Resource Center (WDI), a nonprofit corporation, will extend its seasonal use and broaden its offerings to include a stage for dance, music and theater presentations and a pavilion to provide covered space for community use.
“It will be a family-centered music and performance venue, and a place to hold fundraisers and small markets. Movies will be the heart of the schedule, with plans to update the kitchen and create a fresh summer drive-in menu, but as an event center, the drive-in could host family reunions, be a stage for local and touring music, dance and theater, and stream live concerts, theater and sports,” said volunteer Jane Seegar.
Built in the 1950s approximately 2.5 miles north of Franklin on U.S. 220, the former Warner Drive-In provided low-cost entertainment until movie studios converted into digital format with the comparable projector costing around $100,000. The company leasing the property from owners Franklin Oil Company did not want to invest that much in a rental.
Last year Franklin Oil Company entered into sales negotiations with the West Virginia Division of Highways, which planned to tear down the facility to expand space.
“Fortunately that sale did not occur,” said Warner Drive-In Board member Kim Ruddle. After a public outcry, a group of concerned citizens came together to form a nonprofit with a two-year, rent-to-own contract and a determination to form the resource center.
“The outpouring of community support has been overwhelming,” said Board treasurer Jessica Basagic. “Volunteers have helped every step of the way and have raised enough money to purchase the digital projector, upgrade the concession stand and make improvements to the property.
“It’s like a resurrection,” said Basagic, whose great-grandfather, Charlie Warner, and grandfather, Harold Warner, opened the theater on April 2, 1952. “Now I know my children can grow up here just like I did. Since I could walk, I’ve run around here.”
The Warner Drive-In plans to construct a stage at the base of the curved 50-foot high, 75-foot wide screen which is newly painted on the side of a three story block building containing an apartment space which could be remodeled into a museum. The roof will be repaired and a pavilion erected at the back of the property.
Board Vice Chair Dr. King Seegar thinks the possibilities for students are most exciting.
“We envision this being more than a drive-in but a community resource,” he said.
Possibly working with the school system with future classes in cinematography, a wider audience could be attracted for student-produced music, dance and theater by utilizing the stage and building, he said.
“Schools and arts groups can work together to create and show student work in film-making and teach technology and visual media. Partnered with local nonprofits, students could document such regional resources as rock-climbing, caving, fishing, hiking, hunting and kayaking,” Seegar added.
The seasonal use of the facility will be extended to weekdays and as a three-season venue with the indoor pavilion, Seegar said.
Warner Drive-In Board President Bob Davis envisions forming educational and scientific collaborations and to perhaps stream astronomy sightings from Spruce Knob and other observatories to the big screen or to view critter-cams of local wildlife specialists.
“West Virginia television specials on history and culture would be at their most fun viewed together at the drive-in with a locally-sourced burger or trout taco in hand,” Davis said.
Brainstorming fundraising is a necessity. Future possibilities include a letter campaign and applications for state and federal grants.
“This is just the beginning,” Board Secretary Gail Price said. “Now we need to raise $150,000 in 18 months to buy the property. Then we can start to expand. Just because we are open does not mean the fundraising stops.”
The Warner Drive-In is a nonprofit organization operated by the Warner Drive-In Cultural Resources Center Inc., located at Box 974, 3169 Petersburg Pike, Franklin, WV 26807. More information is available at www.warnersdriveinwv.org and [email protected].
The board of directors include Basagic, Seegar, Ruddle, Davis, Price, Brianna Bruns, John Connor, Mike Mallow and Hal Stickley.
The WDI plans to show movies at least through the end of October this year, Price said. The Disney movie “Pete’s Dragon” is scheduled for Treasure Mountain Festival weekend.
“Now families from Pendleton County and surrounding areas can continue to enjoy parking on the hill in front of the screen to share the enjoyment of movie night watching the stars under the stars,” Jane Seegar added.