B&B defends drive-in decision

Editor’s note: Bob Bagby, president of B&B Theatres, explained his company’s decision to close the 54 Drive-In east of Gas. The Register thought it newsworthy enough for Page 1 coverage.

We recently sent a letter to Caleb Johnson, the young man who spearheaded the petition drive to save the 54 Drive-In in Gas. We’ve had many questions about our decision concerning the drive-in, so I’d like to share the information we sent to Caleb plus some additional thoughts.
B&B has operated indoor theaters and drive-in theaters since 1924 and during those years drive-ins have been very important to the history of our company and to the history of theatrical exhibition. When the 54 Drive-In was built in 1951, no one would imagine that the facility would still be operating into the 21st Century. The building certainly wasn’t designed or built for such a long life. Much has changed in the movie industry since 1951. Almost immediately Cinemascope movies (wide screen) were invented and the drive-in screen became impractical to show many new movies. Stereo sound and then surround sound came to movie theaters and in the last year or so digital movies and 3D movies have become an important new development in the industry. The 54 Drive-In can’t handle most of those new technologies.
The building, besides being old, has been vandalized and broken into many times. Earlier this year a young man deliberately drove a pickup truck into the building. We have spent a great deal of money and man hours trying to keep the building in use, but time has not been kind to it. The building that houses the concession stand, the restrooms and the projection booth cannot be remodeled or restored. The current screen, which has long been a challenge, can no longer handle the predominant number of movies — the screen is simply too small and of the wrong ratio. The buildings and the screens would have to be replaced in order for the facility to continue. Any theater built today would require a digital projector. The digital projector needed for a drive-in would cost nearly as much as the building that would house it. After carefully looking at the costs involved, we don’t believe that a new drive-in could sustain itself.
This past summer we ran more new “on the break” movies than we’ve run in one summer for many years. We thought that this might regenerate interest in the facility. That didn’t happen. The drive-in can not sustain itself as a three-day-a-week summer business; we don’t believe that it could sustain itself as a seven-day-a-week summer business (which is the minimum that it would take to recoup the investment in a new facility).
I understand the emotional attachment that many have to the 54 Drive-In. With all due respect to the facility, we’re not closing a “classic” drive-in with a fancy neon marquee or a grand snack bar, projection booth or playground. We are closing an old, outdated facility.
B&B Theatres is a family-run business. Our heart and soul goes into every project. We cannot justify emotionally or from a business standpoint building a new drive-in and as I’ve said, the current building and screen cannot be restored and continued.
B&B Theatres has operated in the area for nearly 30 years. We operated the old downtown Iola and Chanute theaters for many years. We have operated Sonic Equipment, a theater supply and service company, in Iola for as long as we’ve operated the theaters. We have continued to show our support by building the new Sterling 6 Cinema in Iola and by building the Roxy 4 Theatre in Chanute. Earlier this year we installed a digital 3D projector in the Sterling 6, well before many bigger theaters in bigger communities were making this kind of investment in their theaters.
Several years ago the family that owns B&B Theatres purchased Kneisley Electric in Toledo, Ohio. Kneisley makes products for many industries including movie theaters and glass manufacturers. The family moved the facility to Iola and at the same time expanded Sonic Equipment, installing both companies into a new building on Miller Road. Sonic and Kneisley currently have 35 full-time employees.
You many remember that my parents, Sterling and Pauline Bagby, lived in Iola for many years. My wife and I also lived in Iola for a time in the early ’80s. My family and our companies, B&B Theatres, Kneisley Manufacturing and Sonic Equipment Company are very committed to Allen County.
Even as we close the drive-in, we continue to offer the area 10 indoor auditoriums with stadium seating, heating and air conditioning, superior sound and projection. In the so-called “Golden Age” of movies, the movie theaters of Neosho County and Allen County didn’t have this number of movie choices.
Over the last year or so I’ve watched Iola lose its Ace Hardware store, the IGA, the Western Auto store, several great restaurants and other business establishments. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much coverage when a business leaves as when we decided to close the old drive-in. Perhaps this shows the close emotional attachment that folks have to the drive-in; there may be other areas of the community that need this passion.
Be sure to check out our new digital 3-D projector at the Sterling 6 ... you will feel like you are in the movie with this cutting-edge technology. I hope local citizens will continue to enjoy the Roxy 4 and Sterling 6. We certainly enjoy being part of the area.

Bob Bagby,
B&B Theatres