By Mira Brody EBS STAFF
BOZEMAN – The historic Starlite Drive-In Theater sign, which once shone proudly at its 7th Avenue location in Bozeman back in 1950, has seen its share of adventure since the theater shut down and it retired in 1989. Last year, half of its yellow scrawl was stolen from Erik “Ole” Nelson’s studio, before being returned by apologetic revelers. Nelson acquired the sign from its original owner in 2000, based on a promise to never sell it—he believed the piece of history was for the public to view and enjoy.
This coming Friday and Saturday, the Starlite will light up once more as a fully functional drive-in theater, showing “Walking Out” on Friday, July 24 and “Ballad of Lefty Brown” on Saturday, July 25.
Drive-in movie theaters gained popularity in the 1950s following the baby boom, a car ownership boom and the growth of the suburban lifestyle. Families and first dates would gather to watch the latest from Hollywood from the seats of their cars. Gallatin Valley was not exempt from this fad—the Starlite Drive-in Theatre, which existed just north of Interstate 90 long before the interstate existed, was open for four decades.
“We had talked about that Starlite sign over the years and how it needed to come back to life some day,” said JP Gabriel, owner of Filmlites Montana, a motion picture equipment rental and production company in Bozeman. “[The sign] really did end up springing the light bulb.”
This revival is the result of a team effort between Filmlites Montana, Jereco Studios, Rocky Mountain Rigging and Ole Nelson, who owns Media Station. Together, the team gave the venue a major technology upgrade, with a 25-foot LED light screen that allows for film screening in full daylight with an uncompromised picture.
Gabriel has been steeped in Montana’s booming film production industry for 30 years and was integral in working with Gov. Steve Bullock to get a tax bill passed that credits Montana 20 percent of film production expenditures. Nelson was the man behind the sign—he also restored the original Rialto signage that now adorns downtown Bozeman’s Rialto Theater.
“It had everything to do with COVID,” Gabriel said of the drive-in theater project. “I never would have attempted it without the isolation that COVID has created and the safety that viewing a movie from your car provides. No one would want to open a drive-in theater nowadays with all the amazing amount of technology that’s available, but COVID has opened up a whole new revisit to that market.”
Although there may be some poetry to resuscitating a retro industry in the uncertain climate of a pandemic, Gabriel, who has fond memories growing up near the Great Falls drive-in, says he doesn’t think it runs that deep.
“I think people just want to get outside, they want to see some live entertainment, and are searching for it within the restrictions we’re living in,” he said.
Regardless, it’ll be a way to bridge the gap between those who remember fondly the days of drive-in movies, and those who have never experienced one. Gabriel says, depending on how this weekend goes, they’ll consider expanding the genre, using the platform as a safe way to broadcast comedy shows and music as well.
“We need to be able to experience it with the viewers and we want people to be satisfied with their experience,” Gabriel said. “We’re going to find out with them [on Friday], so we hope they’ll be patient as we find out what is possible and what our limitations are.”
Gabriel, who was in the middle of producing two films in Montana when production was shut down, says those in the film industry are waiting in limbo as they figure out how to proceed with COVID-19 restrictions—the pandemic put a damper on film tax credit momentum in Montana.
The drive-in launches with a focus on featuring Montana-made “home-grown” movies that not only capture the beautiful landscape and character of Big Sky Country, but were also made in Montana by a Montana film crew.
Tickets for this weekend’s shows are available at starlitedriveinmontana.com and the theater is located at 6465 River Road, just north of the Cottonwood Golf course on River Road. Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for kids 12 and under, $12 for seniors 65 and older. Food and beverage concessions will be sold at the event.