Oldest Drive-In Theater Goes Digital

GREGORY, S.D. – In this day and age, you can watch a movie from virtually anywhere.

On your TV, computer, phone, or at the local movie theater.

So we might think drive-in theaters must be a thing of the past.

But that would be wrong.

“Whenever they have kids movies [playing], it’s usually a good excuse to get down here,” says Zach Anderson of Winner.

South Dakota has 6 drive-in theaters, with the oldest one housed in Gregory.

“They have fond memories of things that they’ve might have done at the drive-in theater and I don’t know, it’s just something that seems to work,” says Cecil ‘Slim’ Harsin.

‘Slim’ has been working at the Hilltop Drive-In Theater for more than 60 years.

He became the owner in 1989.

“So you’ve been around movies?.. For forever, yeah, it seems like,” he says.

But ‘Slim’ isn’t alone in this business endeavor.

He’s got a team behind him.

“The family has always been involved so it’s been really, really pretty nice,” explains ‘Slim’.

‘Slim’s’ wife, Linda runs the ticket sale booth.

“It’s kind of fun to meet the people as they come through,” says Linda, who is on a name-to-name basis with majority of the customers.

‘Slim’s’ grandson, Scott, is the technical brains behind the operation.

“I love it,” says Scott. “I’ve been here my whole life. I’ve been trying to help my whole life; working the concession stand, cleaning up popcorn, whatever you got to do, you know!”

But the team doesn’t stop there.

“The nostalgic atmosphere brings me back,” says Suzanne Brun of Gregory. “It’s something we have to keep alive in the community.”

“They don’t make a lot of money doing it,” adds Anderson. “They do it because they love it, and it’s just a great cause to come out and support.”

The Harsin family has the whole town supporting them, and that has come in handy, seeing as the theater, “we needed a new projector,” says ‘Slim’.

“We’d get 6 or 8 reels of film, 35 millimeter,” explains Scott. “We’d put them together on two big platters and it’s a lot of work. It takes a good hour, hour and a half to put films together sometimes.”

But now, the Hilltop Drive-In Theater has gone digital thanks some fundraising help from the community; $25,000 dollars and growing.

“This is what the feature film looks like,” explains Scott as he holding what looks like a hard drive. “We just take it out of the box, and slide it right in there. I click on that, and it downloads it to our system.”

With a final click of a button, a movie like Smurfs: The Lost Village, will start playing instantly.

“It’s much more efficient that way,” says Scott.

“It’s easy, but you know us older people, we’re not as sharp as the young ones,” laughs Linda. “Thank goodness we have Scott.”

While technology keeps changing, the Harsin’s, especially ‘Slim’, say there’s nothing more rewarding than looking out the projector room window, seeing a movie playing and a crowd of people enjoying that movie.

“The people in town really enjoy us being out here and doing this,” he says. “And of course we do too.”

The Harsin family is still looking to raise funds to pay off the new projector.

In total, the projector costs $45,000.

It was the nonprofit Gregory Horizon Development Corporation, that actually bought the equipment on a loan.

To donate to the projector fundraiser, click here.

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