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Colorado’s oldest drive-in theater: 70 years of watching the stars, under the stars at The Star in Montrose

The Star is the nation’s oldest drive-in theater still owned and operated by the founding family, and one of nine drive-ins left in Colorado

A young boy watches a movie from the roof of a car at the Star Drive-In movie theater in Montrose Colorado on June 15, 2019. (William Woody, Special to the Colorado Sun)
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Radio host Al Tessitore took to the airwaves the afternoon of May 19, 1974, to let KUBC-AM 580 listeners know that “Gone With the Wind” was playing at the Star Drive-In movie theater in Montrose.

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It was a terrible joke. A violent tornado had touched down minutes before, ripping the big outdoor screen to the ground.

Pam DeVries Friend fondly recalls Tessitore’s aim to make light of a tough situation. That nightmarish day could have been the Star’s last. But Friend’s father vowed to rebuild and used the family’s savings to construct an even larger screen. The theater was closed for only 10 days.

“A 102-mile-per-hour twister came through and twisted it backwards,” Friend says. “A newer, bigger, 80-by-90-foot screen went up and has been there ever since.”

This season marks 70 years of business for the Star. Friend, 66, has lived through the cultural and generational changes in the movie industry, the transition from film to digital projection, and survived the peak — and decline — of drive-ins across the country.

The Star is the nation’s oldest drive-in still owned and operated by the founding family. And it’s one of only nine in Colorado still showing movies to people watching from the comfort of their vehicles.

Cars park at the Star Drive-In movie theater in Montrose. (William Woody, Special to the Colorado Sun)

Friend’s parents, George and Elizabeth DeVries, built the theater in 1949 in a field that was then at the edge of town. A few years after the theater’s opening, Friend was spending her nights there as a baby, sleeping in a side room while her parents grew the business.

“Dad put everything the family had to build this place,” Friend says. “I can remember my grandmother — my father’s mother — telling me this was the stupidest thing, why would he go out on a limb and risk all of his savings to build this place. He wanted to open a bar or a drive-in.”

The first movie that played at the Star was “The Younger Brothers,” a 1949 Western about a pair of outlaw siblings who rode with the notorious gang led by Frank and Jesse James but are trying to go straight.

Movie posters from the early days of the Star Drive-In on display in the projection room of the movie theater in Montrose. (William Woody, Special to the Colorado Sun)

Admission was 50 cents for adults and 9 cents for kids. Burgers were a quarter each.

“Back then, you only had one TV channel, there was no (video) streaming or Netflix. This place was packed every night and the weekends, too,” Friend says. “For a double feature — four hours of entertainment — it was affordable for an entire family.”

By the time she was 5 — back when most cars didn’t have seatbelts — Friend had started working at the drive-in as a gofer, running tickets out to resupply the box office and doing other errands while her dad worked the projection booth. At 16, she took over operations and has run the drive-in ever since. She is the only projectionist, working seven nights a week during the summer.

For her, keeping the Star open is not only about the young kids in their PJs climbing over blankets and pillows to watch a double feature, it’s also about providing wholesome entertainment while keeping her family’s four-generation legacy alive.

Young kids eat snacks while watching a movie from the back of a SUV at the Star Drive-In movie theater on May 20, 2019. (William Woody, Special to the Colorado Sun)

“Not only are we selling nostalgia, it is a gathering for the family to spend quality time together, and that is so lacking in our society,” Friend says, “and we really need more of that.”

From the birth of the drive-in movie theater — in 1933, in Camden, N.J. — to its mid-20th-century peak in popularity, the outdoor icon has become a symbol of Americana and a time capsule of cultural heritage. In 1958, at the height of drive-ins’ ubiquity, America boasted more than 4,000 in operation. Today, there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 300.

“I thought there were 350 of us left, but I looked the other day and there are only 315,” Friend says.

The exact number of drive-ins still in operation is hard to pin down. And the first drive-in to open in Colorado remains a topic of debate. Friend says she has had friends try to find that out, but she guesses it was probably near a big city.

In the early days, Westerns, beach movies and comedies were the big drivers of attendance at the Star, Friend says. Films featuring stars such as John Wayne, Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart were so popular that nearly every parking spot inside the Star was taken. Friend says that in 1968, after filming of “True Grit” in Ridgway, about 20 miles south of Montrose, Wayne visited the Star to sign autographs.

Pam Friend works inside the projection room at the Star Drive-In. She is the theater’s sole projectionist. (William Woody, Special to the Colorado Sun)

“He was a very nice man and a very entertaining man,” Friend says. “He was meant to be an entertainer.”

During a recent showing of “The Secret Life of Pets 2,” Montrose resident Kayleen Parr recounted coming to the Star as a child and growing up watching movies outside. Now, she and her husband, Jordan, bring their 1-year-old daughter, Zyrah, to see mostly children’s movies.

“It brings back memories from when I was little, and it’s just really cool that it’s still here after all these years,” Parr says. “I was really little when my parents brought me. It’s about being outside and having fun. I hope they keep this one open for a while.”

Friend says she mostly plays G- and PG-rated movies and tries to stay away from R-rated films with foul language and sex. High-action movies such as the “Avengers” series will pack the theater most nights, she says.

“I love (the Star). It’s unique and something to do,” Montrose resident Sierra Quintana says. “I’ve come since I was little.”

April Mason, whose grandparents started the Star Drive-In, works the ticket booth. (William Woody, Special to the Colorado Sun)

Quintana and her boyfriend, Skyler Smith, huddle under blankets on a mattress they placed in the back of a small Ford Ranger pickup. Smith, who grew up in the Montrose area, can remember coming to his first movie at the Star in 1995.

“It’s kind of a dying art,” Smith says. “You don’t get this experience very often anymore.”

An unusually wet spring has kept attendance low this season, says Friend, who also works each day to keep her other family business, DeVries Produce, going. The wet weather also has delayed sweet corn and tomato plantings.

“It’s been a tough spring,” she said.

Every June, the drive-in hosts its annual “Back to the ’60s Night,” where prizes are given for best classic car, best pin-up model and more. Friend says the event is still going strong after 28 years.

About 10 years ago, when the Star was celebrating its 60th anniversary, the switch from 35-millimeter film to digital projectors threatened to force the drive-in out of business.

Friend needed to convert her projection room into a “clean room” in order to accommodate the new digital equipment — with temperature-control gear and air ventilation to prevent dust and overheating — at a cost of roughly $100,000, which was covered by the family and public donations.

“Everyone in the community donated to keep it open,” Smith recalls. “We wanted to keep it open and keep it here.”

Concession stand workers prepare snacks for customers at the Star Drive-In movie theater in Montrose. (William Woody, Special to the Colorado Sun)

The upgrades also pumped new life back into the Star. Friend says she feels a lot of pride knowing that generations of families have watched movies at her business over the past seven decades.

“I’ve had parents who I’ve held as children, now bringing their children,” she says. “I’ve had great-grandparents who came here in the ’50s and ’60s now bringing their great-grandchildren here.”

Friend has worked at the Star with her two siblings, her children — including her daughter April Mason, who still works the ticket booth — and her grandchildren and nieces and nephews (there are six), who direct cars and work in the concession stand. A great-grandson has started working there, too. She also hires seasonal workers — mostly teenagers on their first job — to sell burgers, soda, candy and buttered popcorn.

“I’ve had four generations of people work for me,” Friend says. “Of course, in 70 years you’re going to have that. We all get old.”

When Friend is not helping out in the concession stand, operating the projector or talking with longtime customers, patrons can find her sitting outside, watching movies under the stars, just as she has for the past seven decades.

Movie goers eat sancks next to cars at the Star Drive-In movie theater in Montrose Colorado Saturday June 15, 2019. (William Woody, Special to the Colorado Sun)

Looking to get your nostalgia on? There still are nine drive-in movie theaters operating in Colorado.

Best Western Movie Manor: Monte Vista
Blue Starlite Mini Urban Drive-In Theater: Minturn
Comanche Drive-In: Buena Vista
Denver Mart Drive-In: Denver
88 Drive-In: Commerce City
Holiday Twin: Fort Collins
Mesa Drive-In: Pueblo
Star Drive-In: Montrose
Tru Vu Drive-In: Delta