ARMONA — For many people, the Kings Drive-In Theatre brings back nostalgic memories of movies flickering in the dark through car windshields. They don’t know what Geraldine Graff does.
Every morning, the owner of the facility cleans up from the night before. She doesn’t like what she sees.
Graff encounters vandalism she says is threatening to close the historic theater down.
Hoodlums damaged the exit gate, ripping out wires and cutting a hole in it. Graffiti mars the inside and the outside. Someone tore up the metal fence at the back in order to watch movies for free. Others ripped four doors off the women’s restroom.
Toilet paper dispensers were removed. They keep taking down signs that Graff puts up. They even stole a wooden plank off an outdoor seat in front of the viewing booth.
Security guards could probably stop the mayhem, but the theater isn’t pulling in enough revenue to hire security, Graff said.
The upshot? One of the last drive-in theaters in the San Joaquin Valley, one that has been open in Kings County since World War II, could be in its last movie season.
“Every time I fix one thing, they destroy another thing,” Graff said. “It just goes on and on. What’s coming in is not paying for the repair costs. It’s enough to keep the theater going, but that’s it. I’m [working] there for nothing.”
During the theater’s traditional winter shutdown, Graff said she’ll be thinking about closing the whole operation for good.
It would be the end of an era not only for Kings County, but also for the Graff family, which has operated the outdoor movie house through ups and downs since the 1970s.
The most recent down was the death of Graff’s husband, Thomas, in 2010.
Thomas Graff flirted with selling the property in 2008, knowing he could fetch millions for the prime real estate at 14th Avenue and Lacey Boulevard, a major road crossing halfway between Hanford and Lemoore. Graff predicted it was just a matter of time before he sold.
But after he died, his family didn’t want to pull the trigger, instead working to keep it alive.
For a time, it seemed like it might work. The economic crash led to a surge in customers. Real estate values also took a nose dive, lowering the property’s value.
Now, with the economy and the housing market creeping back, Graff is wondering if the time has come.
“It’s just one thing after another, and it gets really annoying,” she said.
If she raises prices, she knows she’ll probably lose her main clientele — poor families who don’t have $60 a week to see a movie. At $8 a car for six people to watch a doubleheader, Kings Drive-In is far and away the cheapest game in town.
But Graff also has nostalgia customers that come to relive the drive-in’s glory days.
Some of them, without Graff’s knowledge, started a Facebook page on Monday called “Save The Kings Drive In Theatre.” Viewership exploded. By Wednesday morning, the site had 2,093 likes and hundreds of favorable comments asking people to donate money to keep the theater going.
Graff doesn’t know where it’s all headed. But she’s weary and she’s considering throwing in the towel.
“It all depends what happens during the winter on what we are going to do,” she said.
The reporter can be reached at 583-2432 or snidever@HanfordSentinel.com.