The Aut-O-Rama in North Ridgeville wasn't the first drive-in theater in Cleveland, but, in 1972, it was the first to offer two screens. "We actually opened this after the big wave of drive-in theaters in the 1950s," says Deb Sherman, the owner. "So ours looks a little different. We learned from the others what worked and what didn't."
It was birthed seven years before the addition of the second screen, back in 1965, by Sherman's late husband's family. Her father-in-law wasn't necessarily a film lover; he was more of a businessman, always looking for new ideas. Thus, the second screen.
Sherman's husband and his brother joined their father in the business shortly after he opened it, and it's been in the family ever since, with all five Sherman children helping her run the place since her husband's death in 1993. Three of the kids have since moved away, but sons Tim and Del are still around to help their mom.
"I wouldn't be able to do it without them," Sherman says. "I've got three grandkids that are local, and they'll help out and be here just about every night, and if we don't burn them out, hopefully they'll be around here for a while." Sherman's 8-year-old granddaughter runs the register, while her 10-year-old grandson will be popping popcorn and running pizza orders.
Ohio is actually the leading state for drive-in theaters, along with Pennsylvania. "There are 26 in Ohio, last I heard," Sherman says. The Buckeye State's temperate climate lends itself to the industry, as does the local love of automobiles.
"One of my theories," Sherman says, "is that it's part of the whole car climate of this area, with all the car manufacturing back in the days, and people just love their cars and doing things with their cars, and that's a big part of it, hopping in the car and staying in it and watching a movie from the car." The allure is part nostalgia, part functional, and part programming.
While they'll show newer movies, the attraction of combining a semi-old-timey outing with semi-old-timey movies has packed in the crowds. Sherman, in addition to doing everything including running the concession stands, is the chief curator.
"The films from the 1980s are always the most popular," she says. "Pretty in Pink, Weird Science, Sixteen Candles. That's what people like to see. And I look down the list of what was popular in each decade and choose based on that, but the '80s draw the best."
Coincidentally, the 1980s is also when drive-ins were really struggling — when cable television came out, when the VCR became popular and video stores were big and people were staying home. "That was a really rough decade for us and that's when most of the drive-ins around here closed." But Aut-O-Rama stayed open, and while there have been ups and downs since then, it's been pretty steady the last couple of decades, and since digital projectors were installed in 2013, they have seen an uptick in customers. With half a century in the books, here's to another. — Brett Zelman