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The screens went dark for good Sunday night as the Buffalo Drive-In on Harlem Road in Cheektowaga turned off the projectors, shut down the concession stand and said goodbye to an era. “It’s a bittersweet moment,” said Steve Valentine, as he watched a steady stream of cars filling up the 18-acre complex. Valentine and his father, Thomas, have owned and operated the drive-in for more than 40 years. The drive-in looked to be a sellout on its last night, with a long line of cars backed up on Harlem toward Genesee Street. “We’ll probably end up with a couple of thousand people,” he said, “and may sell out every show.” The Buffalo Drive-In is the last drive-in to go in Erie County. “I’m very sorry to see it go,” said Nick Cintorino, a patron and amateur theater historian. “We’re losing our way of life in Buffalo.” Cintorino said Disney’s “Song of the South” was the first movie shown at the drive-in, which opened with one screen. “Well, here it goes, another cinema treasure lost,” he said. Other patrons were feeling the loss as well — most admitting to a feeling of sadness.
“It’s a little sad,” Sue Pelletterie of Cheektowaga said as she waited in line in the bustling concession stand. “I can remember seeing movies from the back of a station wagon as a kid.” Donna Persons, who has owned the concession stand with her husband for about three years, said she just didn’t expect their seasonal stint at the drive-in to end so suddenly. “You just anticipate it’s going to go on forever,” she said.
She said many of the patrons brought their young children for the first time. “They just wanted them to experience it,” she said. Ticket takers were also busy but realized it was almost over. “It’s a little bit sad,” Nick Cherre of Cheektowaga said, echoing the thoughts of many drive-in employees. The theater, which is destined to be the site of a medical campus, opened in 1948. A decade later there were nearly 5,000 drive-ins in the United States. That trend reversed in the following two decades, first with the advent of television, then with the growth of cable, VCRs and DVDs. The decline has slowed, but continues. As of August 2006, there were 398 drive-ins operating with 651 screens, according to the United Drive-In Theater Owners Association. As he stood by the gates to the drive-in for the last time, Valentine expressed his appreciation to his patrons and his employees. “I want to say thank you to everyone in Western New York,” he said. “We couldn’t have done it without our loyal customers.” Pointing to the beautiful weather and line of patrons waiting to get in, Valentine viewed it as a storybook ending. “This is just perfect,” he said. “What a way to go.”