MILTON-FREEWATER — The MF Drive-In Theater’s 70th season kicked off on the eve of Friday, March 31, with pouring rain and a deluge of excitement.
Car after car, many wide-eyed youths leaning out the windows, headed for the ticket counter outside Milton-Freewater.
As drivers paid for admission, several greeted owner Mike Spees as their favorite cousin.
“Happy to see you again,” boomed one man from his pickup truck as his children squealed in anticipation.
Mark Jones, who grew up in Milton-Freewater, said he came from Hermiston to be here for the premiere with his son Josiah, 3.
Miguel Aguirre-Dalque, 10, rides from Walla Walla with his mother, Sage Armstrong. After admitting the duo, there were ten spots left for snacks and that made them both grin.
Spice and his sidekick, Jace Hodge, quickly made change — the enterprise is cash only — and reminded everyone to tune in to 90.7 FM to listen to the movie.
No one seemed to bat an eye at paying an extra dollar for the senior ticket last year, a change forced by inflation, Spies said.
First was “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” from the DC Comics superhero genre, followed by “65”, a sci-fi film starring Adam Driver. With the show starting at full dusk, a night at the venue can be great fun.
The drive-in is the only movie theater in the area that offers two movies for the price of one, goes the familiar Spiess family saying.
The formula has worked well for decades, even when the coronavirus pandemic threw everything upside down in 2020.
A look back
It wasn’t their first rodeo with big challenges, Mike Spies and his wife, Lori Spies, said.
This outdoor theater, one of only four left in Oregon and about 300 in the nation, was built in 1953. Mike’s parents, Dick and Loretta Spies, purchased it in the winter of 1961, the same year the firstborn, Mike, was born .
“The summer of ’62 was our first season,” said Mike Spees.
Every spring means restoration and improvements to the property. The most notable was the one from 2008, after a historic storm hit this corner of the Northwest and destroyed the huge projection screen.
Time can be a movie’s harshest critic, Laurie Space has pointed out.
In 2022, one April evening the drive had to close due to falling snow, the one thing the projected images couldn’t break through. The flakes block the light and that creates shadows on the screen, she explained.
Then last August there was monsoon-like rain and wind, with rain so heavy it blew out lights and ruined signs.
“Also, we once had a projector break down. Otherwise, we’re open,” Lori Spies said, slicing 2 pounds of fresh mushrooms for the pizzas that will come out.
The concession stand, largely original to the 1953 construction, is a kingdom unto itself, frequented on show nights by ardent and loyal fans.
Lori Spies manages with other family members and a staff that consists of high school and college students, many of whom have known the couple from private and public schools.
After they married at age 19—their first date was in the car, naturally—Laurie and Mike went to college, returning on weekends and summers to help with the family business.
Both have spent their careers in education. Mike continues to do so as a math teacher and football coach in the College Place Public Schools, while Lori has now transitioned her expertise to caring for her grandson a few afternoons a week.
Family helps keep the show going
It’s a family from both sides that show up season after season. Luella Nyquist, for example. Mike’s aunt came to Milton-Freewater from the Salem area to help her sister Loretta and brother-in-law Dick in 1970.
The plan was to work at the Lamb-Weston food processor one summer, Nyquist recalled as he carried a can of No. 10 cheese sauce to the nacho station.
“I’ve never been back home. I just love it here,” she said.
Nyquist has already blown out 80 candles on his birthday cake and has no plans to stop helping put the snack shack in front of the crowd.
Christy Richard is on a similar employment contract, usually paid in pizza.
Richard estimated that she had been helping her sister Lori for about four decades.
She’s not dreading the season opener, “but by August…” Richard said, portraying exhaustion.
Pizza is king
Inside the stand’s swinging saloon doors, the aroma of fresh popcorn filled every nook and cranny before the gates opened. Roy Cohoon, drawn into this gig by marriage, manned the giant kettle, pouring load after load of hot, fluffy nuggets onto a growing mountain of popcorn.
Stacks of movie staples—Junior Mints, Mike and Ike, Good & Plenty—were ready in their display case under the counter.
But here, Lori said, she made the pizza.
Not only are these made from scratch, except for the rind, but they’re an affordable treat, she added.
“You can feed a family for $24,” she said.
A 12-inch pizza costs $12-$15, and crowd favorites include pepperoni, sausage and Canadian bacon. It’s not uncommon for people to show up just for the pizza, walking out of the gate with a hot pie for dinner at home.
Other traditional offerings are family-friendly, including $4 hot dogs and $5 nacho boats. That says something about a small business that primarily shops for snack offerings at the grocery store, Spiesses said.
Keeping the entrance accessible to families was important to his father, Mike said, as he prepared to run the screening booth.
“Our sweet spot is a 30-something mom who has a bunch of little kids,” he said. “Families are the ones who spend the money at the diner.”
It wasn’t easy to raise some of the prices this year, he and Lori agreed, but rising costs for food, wages and more forced the decision.
There are also costs that have always determined a drive-in’s bottom line, such as the digital projector, which reached $60,000 in 2010, and the associated light bulbs, which can cost $1,000.
Until this equipment lands, films will arrive on six or more metal reels. Like his father before him, Mike would stitch them together into one continuous film wound on a “plate” reel.
Movies now come in the mail on a hard drive the size of a VHS tape.
“Then I get an email with an unlock code,” he said.
When things go wrong, a remote technician can usually fix the problem. That said, on the first night of the installation, a “frightening” hailstorm mysteriously stopped the showing of the second film, Mike said.
“And once the sound and picture were out of sync,” he said.
Still, the advantages of digital are clear: Images are super bright and sound is clear compared to the old days, he said.
Eventually, propulsion will have to gradually enter the laser era.
“But maybe not in my lifetime,” Mike, 61, said.
What is coming soon is a question
Lori and Mike aren’t sure if they see a theatrical heir in their three children. Two are teachers living elsewhere, and one grown son works here in the wine industry.
“I’m not sure I’d wish that on them,” Mike said with his usual grin.
He talked like a man who broke up fights, and once an unfortunate customer tried to shoot him with a hunting bow.
That guy missed, and those days are thankfully over, Mike said.
The coronavirus caused a deviation in Spiesses’ schedule. Before 2020, it seemed plausible that both would retire from education and rely on drive-in profits to get them by.
But with multiple lockdowns, the film industry didn’t release a new product in the first pandemic summer. Eventually, Hollywood responded by opening its vaults to make old content available at a reasonable price, Mike said.
In addition, the MF Drive-In has become a safer community center. The family has opened the doors for a number of community purposes, from Easter church services, a Weston-McEwen High School graduation ceremony, virtual concerts and film festivals.
The summer of 2021, however, was far flatter. New movies weren’t available yet, and so were many others.
“Then last year there were very few new movies available,” Mike recalled of 2022. “We ran ‘Top Gun (Maverick)’ four times this summer,” he said.
In a normal year, there is so much new content that no theater can use it all, he said.
“The trade articles look like the 2024 season will be back to normal and I think this summer will be the beginning of the availability of that film content,” he said.
Only open on weekends for now, the drive-thru increases to six nights a week after schools let out in June. That will include “Rewind Wednesdays,” when admission goes back to $12 per car, Laurie said.
For now, she and Mike are content to stick with the family tradition. And who can say? Perhaps a grandson would be the next to step up, the two speculated.
“I’ll probably stay into my mid-60s,” Mike said. “I don’t like that…yet.”