Curtains closing on iconic Weirs Beach drive-in movie theater

  • The entrance to the Weirs Drive-In Theater is seen last summer. The theater will be closing Monday after 69 years. The future owner of the site says he plans to build high-end condominiums on the property. Monitor file

  • The entrance to the Weirs Drive-In Theatre (JENNIFER MELI / Monitor Staff)

  • The entrance to the Weirs Drive-In Theatre (JENNIFER MELI / Monitor Staff)

Laconia Daily Sun
Published: 9/2/2017 11:47:34 PM

When the screens go dark at the Weirs Drive-In on Monday night, something will be lost beyond the popcorn and film entertainment.

That seemed to be the prevailing opinion of moviegoers who waited patiently in the gathering darkness recently for one of the final shows at the 69-year-old iconic theater, which is being sold to a businessman who has plans for condominiums and commercial development on the site.

Corey and Jess Chamberlin, each 30, drove in from Concord and parked in the front row for a showing of Hitman’s Body Guard and Baby Driver.

They put their camp chairs outside their car and relaxed while waiting for the first movie to start. Snacks, drinks, blankets, footstools and extra batteries for their portable radio were close at hand (movie audio is broadcast on an FM frequency).

There’s nothing quite like watching a movie under the stars, Corey Chamberlin said. Better audio and sharper images may be available at indoor theaters or in-home entertainment centers, but that misses the point, he said.

“When we were younger and had more time off, you know, it was great,” he said. “You go and hit the beach all day. When the sun comes down, you slide on over here. It was great, and great for families.”

Chamberlin likes the old-school, touristy feel of the Weirs, and isn’t interested in any fancy stores or expensive condos.

“Each community on the lake does its own thing,” he said. “Like Meredith does a great job for being sort of a place where there are some of those high-end shops and they cater to that.

“Laconia is the family-friendly community. You have the Funspot. You have the boardwalk. You have the beach. This is where you are coming with the family. You have all the places to stay on the lake. Look across the way. There’s an arcade, mini-golf. That’s what Laconia is.”

Date night

A few rows away, Amber Culwell, 47, and Jeff Salava, 46, were sitting comfortably in the back of a pickup truck. They drove in from Nottingham, an hour’s trip.

“To me, it’s sad,” Culwell said. “I came here with my kids in a stationwagon. I’ll miss it.”

Nearby, Devin Jeannotte and Madeleine Porcella also waited. They came from Northwood.

“I’ve been coming here since I was a kid,” said Jeannotte, 26. “This is her second time. Both times were with me.

“It’s something different. You get to see two movies and it’s outside.”

Porcella, 24, said she likes the atmosphere.

“It’s nice to be under the stars, watching a movie,” she said.

And, then there’s the romantic aspect.

“You see all these lovey-dovey movies on TV of people in drive-ins sitting in cars,” Jeannotte said. “When you get to come to one, it’s kind of cool.”

Selling the business

Patricia Baldi, 78, is selling the 12-acre property for $2.5 million to Al Mitchell, who owns a one-acre parcel adjacent to the theater and another nine acres on nearby Tower Hill. Baldi said the land is simply worth more than the business and she is ready to retire.

Mitchell said his properties should complement each other and allow for as many as 80 condominium units, an event center, a hotel and other businesses.

His hope is to create the kind of attractive and successful commercial and tourism community that has taken shape in Meredith, which went through an economic renaissance in the 1980s.

Mitchell had obtained first right of refusal on purchase of the drive-in property, which has been on the market for about a year. When another buyer came forward, Mitchell matched the offer, which included a provision that theater-related equipment is not part of the deal.

Baldi’s son, Larry, will take that equipment and intends to open another drive-in theater elsewhere.

If he is able to make a go of it, he will be bucking a long trend.

Drive-in decline

The number of drive-in theaters nationwide has declined from 4,063 in 1958 to 324 currently, said Patrick Corcoran, spokesman for the National Association of Theatre Owners.

Most drive-ins were built from 1950 to 1970 on large plots of land that became more valuable as cities grew up around them. Many of these theaters were sold and the land was put to use for other purposes, such as housing and retail stores.

Also, audience preferences changed and more people stayed home and watched television instead of going to the movies. Movie distributors prohibited first-run movies from playing at drive-ins for a time in the 1970s. In many parts of the country, cold weather ensures drive-in theaters have only a short season. The Weirs Drive-In operates three months a year.

Projection booth

Kevin Baldi, 35, grandson of Patricia Baldi, was the projectionist that night. He said he has worked at the drive-in since he was eight. He plans to leave town after the theater closes.

“Basically, I’m picking up and leaving Laconia,” he said. “This is the only thing keeping our family here. We’re all in the middle of transition.”

He said he is saddened by the demise of the drive-in and feels that when the business closes, “this will be the last nail in the coffin for Weirs Beach.”

“Weirs Beach is a tourist community,” he said. “And this is the last big attraction out here. After this, it’s just going to be million-dollar condos and people that are here for a week.”

“It’s kind of sad. It’s the end of an era.”

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