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After more than a quarter of a century of running what is now one of Colorado’s five drive-in theaters, Mesa Drive-In owners Chuck and Marianne James are ready to roll out the end credits.
The drive-in is for sale and James said “the price was right” at $ 860,000 which includes 16 acres of land, three large screens and all fixtures, furniture and equipment. Nico Cordova of Cordova Investments markets the theater nationwide and manages the sale.
So far, most interested buyers want to keep a drive-in.
“We don’t want to see the new owner come in and destroy it. It works and hopefully we are hopeful that we can find a buyer who will keep it as a drive-in because Pueblo loves his drive-in, ”said James.
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From 1951 to today, the Mesa Drive-In is a mainstay of Pueblo
The theater opened in 1951, but by 1993 the Mesa Drive-In only made $ 7 in total revenue for the year. It was a failure and owner Larry Starsmore, who was 94 at the time, was ready to step down from the business.
The last big screen in Southeast Colorado was to fall for demolition and its property sold, likely to make way for a housing estate. But the James, who owned the 1918 Skyline Theater in Cañon City, decided they could save it.
The Cañon City couple learned of the theater’s impending demise from the late Hank Holloway, a Cañon City radio personality. So they called Starsmore to inquire about his purchase.
“We were literally the only ones who asked for it to continue to function as a movie theater. We took over when no one else wanted the place,” recalls James.
“It was slated for demolition. In fact, we beat it by a week,” he said.
The couple turned out to be exactly what the Mesa needed – owners who wanted to be practical and put a lot of time and effort into the business. They lovingly upgraded the drive-in by adding two additional screens, new bathrooms, and a new concession stand.
James, a handyman, learned how to fix everything from spotlights to the popcorn machine.
They even upgraded the theater with an expensive digital conversion and both took classes to learn how to repair digital projectors. All the while, they’ve managed to keep that nostalgic feel of the company’s freshly popped popcorn.
James himself remembers his first cinema experience with his father at Sunset Drive-In in Cañon City. It was 1959 and the movie was “The Blob”.
He and Marianne love the good old days of theater so much that they have the beautifully restored Sunset Marquee displayed in their home.
When they took over the Mesa Drive-In, “we took something that we love, that Pueblo loves, and we kept the atmosphere nostalgic. Pueblo really appreciated all of our efforts, ”said James, and the theater was profitable again – very profitable.
“It’s something we’re proud of and let go, it’s a little tough – it’s a tough one. It’s awesome,” James said.
Daily commutes from Cañon City have made running the theater more difficult this summer.
“If we lived any closer…” James said. “When we said we can run it, we didn’t ask how long can we run it – I’m pushing 70.”
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Mesa employees among second generation theater workers
Leaving their employees is one of the couple’s difficulties. Some are part of the second generation of their families to work in the theater.
“We hired them and hired their kids and now their grandchildren are coming in,” until the age when they can work at the drive-through next summer, James said.
“We love the older stuff and seeing it survive.”
Colorado’s other surviving drive-ins are located in Fort Collins, Denver, Monte Visa, and Delta. In Leadville, the Commanche opened for weekend-only concerts this summer for the first time in years, James said.
As for the James, they are not yet ready to give up their passion for theaters. They still own the Skyline Theater in Cañon City, having bought it a few years ago.
“We have redone the seats, the ceiling, the digital, the heating and air conditioning and added a new Dolby sound system,” he said.
He even went so far as to replace over 100 light bulbs, including the small ones that line the aisles, and put old soap and paper towel dispensers back into the washroom.
“It’s ready to go. We just don’t know what we’re going to do with it – we really don’t know, ”James said.
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