In its heyday, the Tiffin Drive-In on North SR 53 was the place for families to go on a Friday or Saturday night and for couples to have an inexpensive date.
This week, Rod and Donna Saunders of Liberty Center are expecting to become new owners of the drive-in.
In 2007, the Saunders' built the Field of Dreams Drive-In in Liberty Center, and they have been running it as a family. Rod is a teacher at Woodmore High School in Toledo, so he wanted a business he could operate during the summer months. Donna works at Owens Corning in Toledo. At the time they got started, they worried about the decline in the economy, but those concerns have turned out to be minor.
"We've found that, no matter how bad the economy gets, people still need their escape from their own personal reality. Movies are an inexpensive way for people to escape," Donna said.
She said Rod had looked into buying a second site in Gibsonburg but learned it would not be available. Then earlier this year they heard the Tiffin Drive-In was not to be re-opened for the season.
The Barrs, who live in the Cleveland area, said they were retiring and selling their theater businesses around the state, including the one in Tiffin. Rod said Norman was making arrangements to put the Tiffin theater on the market. Online, Rod found a short video of the property, but he had not been there in person. Even so, he expressed interest in its purchase.
"I knew where Tiffin was, but I had no idea how to get here," Rod said.
Back in Ohio, the couple visited the site in person and brought in other people to assess its condition. Rod said trees were growing in front of the screen, and he saw the need to modernize the restrooms. With enough time and money, he felt it could be brought up to code.
The Saunders made an offer and the Barrs accepted.
In March, Rod received permission to start cleaning up the grounds, even though the closing had not occurred.
"We've had people stop by because they've noticed people out working. They pull in and say, "What are you doing?' ... Once they find out we're going to keep it a drive-in and not destroy it, they are really excited," Donna said.
Rod is working with commercial inspectors from Richland County to make sure the wiring, plumbing and other systems are adequate.
A contractor already has been secured to repair and paint the large screen. The Saunders and family members plan to do much of the work themselves.
"We'd love to be open by Memorial Day, at least with the first screen. We're planning on adding a second screen, and we're hoping to have that second screen up by June," Donna said.
"Our plans are, first and foremost, to put a great picture on the screen ... but we also want to make it look appealing, a safe place for families to come and spend the evening," Rod said.
If constructed, the second screen would measure about 45 feet wide by 20 feet high and serve 90-100 vehicles.
With two screens, the Saunders would be able to have a different first-run movie every week. During the first week, each film would run on the main screen and then move to the secondary screen the second week. Rod said movies that attract a large audience could run on the larger screen both weeks. Patrons would have more options for viewing new releases.
"When you have first-run movies, the distributors require that you keep that movie for two weeks, sometimes three weeks," Donna explained. "Every weekend, then, we will have four movies showing, because we have double features."
The Tiffin theater is being renamed Field of Dreams Drive-In-Tiffin. The new name is to let people know it is under new management with ties to the Saunders' original drive-in. Donna said the pricing and food menu will be similar at both locations. Children under age 5 will be admitted free, and food at the concessions stand will be made from scratch.
The house on the Tiffin site is to be refurbished and Denton Saunders, the couple's oldest child, is to live there during the season to manage the theater. He is a junior at Bowling Green State University, studying to be a teacher. Experienced staff from the Liberty Center theater are to be brought in to do quality control and train a few new hires in Tiffin.
In doing informal surveys, the couple learned that area residents had stopped coming to the Tiffin drive-in because of its decrepit condition and poor service. The new owners want to treat customers well to keep them coming back. The tactic has worked so far.
"We have found that word-of-mouth advertising is our best advertising. Once people find out about us and try us, they just tell everybody they know about us. We have grown by leaps and bounds," Donna said.
"One of us plans to be here every night," Rod said.
The Liberty Center Field of Dreams Drive-In opened Friday night with "Ringo" and "Hop."