Drive-in for family fun

By: 
Chris McConnell
Outlook staff writer
Riley Cooke fires up the Amusement Park Drive-in’s 1936 Cretors gas-powered popcorn maker. It remains a popular brand and Cooke says parts are still available for his model.
One of the projection booths at the Amusement Park Drive-in is a 1938 Chevy circus truck Cooke bought for $300 and rebuilt and modified for use in his outdoor theatre.
The projector on the east-facing screen beams “The Mummy” as the light fades on the Summer Solstice at the Amusement Park Drive-in on Tuesday night.

Nostalgia is a catch-all word generally used to describe some vague feeling or memory and is usually associated with something that is fleeting or irretrievable.
Many adults have fond memories associated with drive-in theaters, but Laurel’s Amusement Park Drive-in owner Riley Cooke isn’t selling nostalgia; he’s selling an experience: A fun, safe and community-based experience.
Cooke and his wife Vickie worked in the outdoor amusement business, working and running carnivals for 17 years before a growing family made it difficult for them to travel so much.
“It’s tough to raise a kid on the road. After we had our oldest daughter we stopped and had somewhat of a normal life,” he said.
Since July of 2005 Cooke, former Laurel and current Bridger resident, has operated the drive-in theatre in East Laurel with his wife and daughter.
“I built this not knowing anything, but it was something I always wanted to do,” he said.
“My wife and two kids and I built this by hand,” he said, scanning the property.
After the Old Park drive-in in Cody, Wyo. closed in 2003 he brought the screen towers, marquee and sign to the current location and built the Amusement Park Drive-in during 2004 and the first half of 2005.
He wanted to be closer to the interstate but he said he had to buy what he could afford.
“It’s like driving to grandmother’s house the first time, but after that it’s easy [to find],” he joked, adding, “It’s on a dead end road and it’s safe.”
Cooke said drive-ins had their heyday in the 1950s but began to be sold off 30 or so years later when they were ageing; cities had grown around them and the land had become valuable. He said two drive-in theatres in Billings were at the current Rimrock Mall location and the Target store in the Heights.
“When I was a kid the drive-ins were on 24th and that was out in the hayfields. Now it is on 72nd and that is out in the hayfields. The town ​is bigger but the distance really hasn’t changed,” he reflected.
His innovative idea was to put two screens on one tower, but facing opposite directions, so the patrons watching different movies would all be looking towards the center of the complex.
Cooke isn’t sure if he has the only outdoor theatre with back-to-back screens but he is certain it’s the “only one in the world with a roller coaster around it.”
Unfortunately, the “ridiculous” cost of liability insurance makes operating it out of reach for him at the moment.
Cooke’s original plan was to run two businesses on the property; the drive-in at the main area and an amusement park on four adjoining acres.
He hasn’t given up on the idea yet.
“I have 15 rides stacked up that I don’t use today that are dedicated to this. There are tilt-a-whirls, European swings, paratrooper rides and scramblers. It’s not all kiddie stuff; it’s neat rides. It’s what I like,” he said.
He also has a large roller coaster under construction. Upon completion, he says it will be “the largest in a four-state region that includes Montana, Wyoming and North and South Dakota.”
His plans slowed when the film medium changed and his projectors became obsolete.
“We were building the big roller coaster and put a lot of money into it when we were forced to go to digital; we didn’t have a choice.”
Cooke said the two digital projectors were a $100,000 investment and “because of that investment, we held up” on the coaster and amusement park plans.
Cooke said the Hollywood studio’s vision of the movie-going experience varies from his own and from the patrons who come to his outdoor theatre week after week.
“The studios believe the “IMAX theatre is the movie-going experience. Where you become part of what you are seeing; the sound surrounds you. Nobody talks because you are in the movie.”
The outdoor theatre experience is different.
“The drive-in is a passive experience. You come out here to talk to your family and friends,” he said.
“It’s not nostalgia, it’s a resurgence, and it’s family and value. We are an entertainment source that doesn’t require much planning, or cost. Kids have more freedom here. Kids pay us with quarters and dimes. Parents give them a little money and they come into the concession barn and they buy the first thing they’ve bought in their life on their own. It’s a safe environment,” he stressed.
The community aspect of the outdoor theatre and Cooke’s local roots are always in the forefront of his mind.
He loves selling tickets, “It’s my favorite thing in the world and I don’t get to do it much. People pull up and say ‘hey Riley, what are you playing?’ They have no clue what I’m showing. They’re coming anyway. Nobody does that at an indoor.”
He said he built it in Laurel because this is the community he where he feels the strongest connection.
“This is my home, and these are my people. I can sit here and see thousands of people I don’t get to see when I’m on the road,” he said.
He also takes pride in hiring local workers for the season.
“This is a lot of kids’ first job and 99 percent of them are Laurel or Joliet kids. It’s how it’s always been, they tell their friends or siblings and relatives, and then they come get a job,” he said.
Cooke expects his outdoor theatre to have continued success, even in the face of the changing technology and Hollywood studio decisions. The speed with which new releases are being sent to online mediums is alarming for many theatre owners, according to Cooke.
“The window is too tight between exhibition and video. Hollywood is trying to kill theaters by doing ‘time and date.’ They want to release movies online [through iTunes and Amazon, etc.] the same day they release it in theaters. The National Association of Theatre Owners was fighting that cause it’ll be the death of the indoor theatre,” Cooke warned.
However, he sees a silver lining unique to his business.
“We’ll be ok because we’re more of an experience, but we [still] don’t want that.”
He said that many people are extremely loyal and “come all the time, bringing their friends and family,” and they all help make it feel like a community event. Most nights he has new customers who didn’t know there was a drive-in the region
Cooke is proud of his theatre and said, “We’re as good as any in the nation. Our concession barn is bigger, nicer, cleaner and brighter. The menu is deeper and prices are fair,” plus, he asked, “Where can you go for $5 anymore?”
Call the drive-in an experience. Call it a community event.
Just don’t call it nostalgic.

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Wednesday, July 17, 2019
10 a.m., Laurel Public Library, 720 West Third Street, Laurel, 628-4961
Wednesday, July 17, 2019
Every Wednesday at 5:30 p.m., check www.laurelexchangeclub.org for more info. Find them on Facebook www.facebook.com/laurelexchangeclub . Email them to find out meeting time and to join: clubinfo@laurelexchangeclub.org The club will have a meeting or volunteer activity. Meeting location is Sid's East Side Bar & Grill on first and third Wednesdays of each month. Members and guests eat free.  Volunteer activity on the second Wednesday of each month. Check their facebook page for updates.  Every fourth Wednesday is for a club social activity. 
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