Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
June 15 was Wes Neal Day in Kansas City, Kansas.
The mayor of Kansas City made the proclamation. The ceremony was projected on a 100-by-75 foot screen that is the centerpiece--but not the soul--of Boulevard Drive-In, a KC summer mecca located in a mixed-use neighborhood four miles from downtown. Neal, 91, owns the Boulevard, one of just three outdoor cinemas left in a region that once supported 10 times that number. He bought the business in 1984 after working there 30 years, beginning as a "ramp boy" parking cars.
The Boulevard has survived despite regular flooding from an adjacent creek, with waters so high they once submerged the snack bar. Competing entertainments, starting with television, eroded ticket sales while film distributors raised their prices. The nadir arrived in 1996 when, for the first time, the Boulevard lost money: $6,000. "I think we would not have been here except for Swap 'n' Shop," says Neal, referring to the flea market he launched on the theater's grounds in 1975.
But while the industry continues to languish (fewer than 350 drive-in theaters remain around the country), the 10-employee Boulevard is once more packing them in. A substantial technology upgrade led by Wes's grandson, Brian, who now runs the business, attracts as many as 700 cars for each double feature on the weekends. In 2012 the Boulevard became the world's first drive-in to offer 4K-resolution digital projection, producing bright, crisp images comparable to a high-end flat-screen TV. Revenues more than doubled. "Grandpa said, 'My gosh, it is like the '60s all over again,'" Brian says.
Now when a new Disney or Pixar flick is on the bill, cars may line up three hours in advance to snag a spot. Before the dark descends, families and teenagers disperse around the Boulevard's 18 acres, creating a convivial atmosphere that's more like a festival than a theater. Hundreds of children swarm the playground, the basketball court, and the volleyball net. Adults crowd the patio near the snack bar, munching on giant Bavarian pretzels and freshly grilled Angus burgers on buns from the local Roma Bakery. Others sit outside their cars on folding chairs or air mattresses, or lounge in the backs of pickups, chatting.
Armed with a video camera connected by coaxial cable to a projector, Brian climbs to the roof of the snack bar and 360s the audience, zooming in on the kids who scream and wave when their images appear onscreen.
"Going to the drive-in is a social event, unlike an indoor theater where everybody is like 'Shhhh...be quiet!'" Brian says. "When I was a teenager, me and my friends would miss most of the movie because we were just talking. We'd be like, 'Shoot. I guess we'll have to come back tomorrow and watch it.'"
Kansas City mayor David Alvey and his family have been summer regulars at the Boulevard since its upgrade to digital. The theater is a combo of "old-school customer care coupled with technology and knowing what people want," Alvey says. "Wes makes you feel welcome. His grandson understands the market."
The Boulevard is also a showcase for the best of what Kansas City offers, says Alvey, who wants to change perceptions of his aging industrial city. "I can point to it and say, 'Yep, that's the Boulevard. That is a great Kansas City, Kansas, business.'"
From hot spot to cold shoulders
Wes Neal was born in the boot heel of Missouri and worked on his parents' struggling cotton farm from the time he could walk. In 1948, at age 21, he moved to Kansas City, where he manufactured medicines for a company that was eventually acquired by Bayer. But life on the farm had deconditioned him for eight-hour days. Still full of energy after leaving work at 3 p.m., he would run around the block 10 times, so he'd be tired enough to sleep.
Deciding a second job was the ticket, Neal went to the Boulevard Drive-In and asked if they needed help. "I started there for $3 a night in 1954," Neal says. "Now I make $4."
With the rise of 1950s car culture, drive-ins for a while eclipsed walk-in theaters in popularity. Kansas City alone had close to 30. The Boulevard went up in 1950, with a single wooden screen and outside speakers, since most cars lacked radios to transmit sound. Neal became one of eight workers who directed customers to empty spaces. (Teenaged couples preferred the back row.) He also mowed the grass, carried ice to the snack bar--whatever needed doing.
The theater priced tickets at 60 cents per head and operated all week, attracting capacity crowds of 400 cars on the weekends. With distributors charging just $35 to rent a film for three days, it was a profitable business. "It didn't matter what movie you were showing. People were going to the drive-in," Neal says.
That didn't last. Starting in the late '60s audience numbers declined. They would do so for another 40 years. Neal, who was manager by then (he still had his day job at Bayer), launched Swap 'N' Shop in 1975 to keep the Boulevard afloat. On Saturday and Sunday mornings, vendors laid out their wares on tables set up between the speaker poles. They sold shampoo, diapers, mouthwash, clothing, produce, motorcycle parts, tools, tires, and toys.
One thing they didn't offer was prepared food. Back then vendors and customers attended free: The Boulevard made money through snack bar sales. Today the Neals charge vendors $15 for a spot and customers $1 admission. The market operates year-round, unlike the theater, which is open April through September. On Saturdays and Sundays Swap 'n' Shop attracts as many as 2,500 customers.
Swap 'n' Shop is exhausting for the Neals, who grab just three hours' sleep between cleaning up after the second show on Friday nights and returning at 6 a.m. to set up for the market. Three more hours of rest, and then they're back for the Saturday night films. On Sunday, they repeat. "Monday we sleep until noon," Brian says.
In 1999, the theater got its first major technology upgrade. That year the creek's flooding ruined the sound equipment; and Neal used insurance money to make the Boulevard the first drive-in with digital sound. He beat a drive-in in Texas by one day.
In the mid-1980s Neal had retired from Bayer and finally bought the Boulevard outright. Brian joined in 2009 after being laid off from Sprint. At first his purview was maintenance and bookkeeping. After a few years he began staging themed events like a Wild, Wild West Night, featuring live country-western music, a mechanical bull riding contest, and--of course--a double-bill of classic horse operas.
In 2012 Brian had already lined up sponsors for a superhero event when he learned the movies he planned to show required digital projection. Some drive-ins had already upgraded to 2K-resolution systems, but none had adopted 4K, which Brian believed was the future. A 4K system would cost $100,000.
Neal agreed to fund the investment with money from his personal bank account. Local media coverage of the upgrade drove traffic to the theater. Immediately average nightly crowds almost doubled, allowing the Neals to raise prices from $8 to $10 per person (kids under 11 are free). "After the first year we made so much money that I was able to write grandpa two $50,000 checks," Brian says. "He said, 'you are the first person who has ever paid me back for something.'"
Since then the Neals have invested rising profits back into the theater. Brian's wife, Clarissa Neal, led a renovation of the bathrooms and a culinary reinvention of the snack bar. Deluged with requests to rent out the Boulevard for corporate events ("I am like, how many people do you have? Forty? Do you know we hold 700 cars?") Brian created a party pad for semi-private functions.
The soul of the Boulevard
Wes Neal remains a fixture at the Boulevard. During the week he walks the property checking speakers. When he finds a faulty one he takes it down from the pole, fixes it, and puts it back.
On weekends Neal wanders the grounds, pausing now and then to join a group of young people tossing a beanbag or to pass the time with someone over funnel cakes. He sells tickets, picks up trash, and jokes with familiar faces. He never watches the films. "I have just watched one movie in the last 10 or 15 years. That was 42, the Jackie Robinson story," he says. "If I watched a movie tonight I could watch it again tomorrow and swear I had not seen it before."
But if Neal doesn't personally love movies, he loves that his customers love them. He's in it to make families happy. "Every weekend," he says, "I will have a lot of people come up to me. They say they appreciate what we are doing for them."