HONOR — Laura Clark actually reads manuals cover-to-cover. It’s a survival skill she picked up in 1997 when she and her husband Harry — then running a bakery in Frankfort — had 10 days to learn the drive-in theater business.
“Someone needed to learn how to run the projector,” Clark recalls, so she read the book on 35 millimeter film projection technique. In nearly 20 years of operating the Cherry Bowl Drive-In she only threaded film upside down once.
The mishap — blamed on Clark juggling the cellulose strips with her 6-month-old granddaughter in hand — provided teasing fodder for years as the soft-spoken Clark is nothing if not methodical.
Now Clark is reading the manual again, this time to usher the drive-in into the digital age and ensure its survival once more. The Cherry Bowl’s new digital projection system will kick off the 2014 season May 2 with a double feature: “The Amazing Spider Man 2” and “The Monuments Men” — in high definition.
The new projector features a 6,500-watt bulb and requires a new climate controlled projection room.
“The picture is going to be sharper, crisper and brighter,” Clark said.
It’s “do or die” time in drive-in land, as theaters that don’t convert to digital may become abandoned, speaker-strewn parking lots. Movie studios stopped making 35 millimeter versions of new releases in 2013. Converting to digital requires a blockbuster budget few can afford.
Clark won the Christie digital projector — worth more than $70,000 — last fall from Honda Motor Company Project Drive-In, a program focused on preserving the “American icon.” Drive-ins numbered nearly 4,000 in their heyday. Fewer than 350 operate throughout the country today. Eight remain open in Michigan.
The Cherry Bowl handily won the Honda’s popularity contest in a census-crushing outpouring of community support. The Village of Honor had 328 people at last count, yet the Cherry Bowl racked up 35,000 “likes” in an hour as when the contest opened in 2013.