When my mother was 9 years old, her parents had a small, beachfront cottage in Van Buren Bay in Chautauqua County. One night, she told me, she went to see a horror film at the Van Buren Drive-In, “The Tingler” starring fright king Vincent Price. Afterward, they all walked back home. Picture a dirt road with no streetlights swallowed up by dark woods. Naturally, she was scared out of her wits.
Such was the power of the drive-in in its heyday.
“We always enjoyed taking our kids to the drive-in where we grew up in Little Valley and had been driving by the site of the original Van Buren Drive-In for 20 years,” says Gina Beckley, who owns the Van Buren Drive-In with her husband, Dan. “Covid found us at a professional crossroads and gave us time to reflect. We decided to act on a longtime dream.”
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Buying a drive-in that has sat idle for three decades (it closed in 1991 after a 42-year run) and restoring it for the modern day is no small feat. The Beckleys, their family members and a few close friends have made a tremendous amount of progress since they got to work in January 2021.
The Beckleys have mostly started from scratch on the original site, which is next door to Manning’s Fireside Manor. They constructed their first drive-in screen, and have plans to add a second in the next year. The original concession stand and ticket booth from 1948 are currently being remodeled.
Last October, the Van Buren Drive-In rose again.
“We hosted more than 70 vehicles for our opening, and people were so happy,” says Gina of opening night. “Our guests were just blown away that we had brought back something they loved. There’s still electrical and finishing work to be done, but we’re up and running. We did it.”
The Van Buren Drive-In kicked off its 2022 season in June with “Jurassic World: Dominion.” The plan is to be open Wednesday through Sunday with double features during the warm-weather months. RVs are welcome, so not all guests have to drive home after a late-night show.
For nostalgia’s sake, the Van Buren Drive-In’s return is welcome. The United States has a little more than 300 drive-ins, with just a handful in Western New York. There’s Transit Drive-In Theatre in Lockport, Delevan’s Loomis Delevan Drive In and Middleport’s Sunset Drive In—all a distance from Chautauqua County.
“I want my children and their generation to experience the same joys that I did,” Gina says.
Van Buren Bay is less than an hour from Buffalo, just a simple ride down Route 5. Once you get into Silver Creek and start to get glimpses of the lake, it’s an outstanding, scenic drive.
In time, the Beckleys hope to host weddings, farmers markets, graduation ceremonies, car shows and other events. They held a high school sports banquet in the fall and look forward to showing Bills games on the LED video wall this season.
No matter what’s on screen, when you pull up to the Van Buren Drive-In and tune in to 99.7 FM, you may experience something spine-tingling.
“I’m a big fan of nostalgia and that’s part of what makes the drive-in so meaningful,” says Gina. “You can bring your kids and let them run around. You can have friends come along in their vehicle and talk freely. It’s more social than going to a movie theatre. The drive-in brings people together.”