Douglas County drive-in brings modern tech to classic experience

A Nebraska family has upgraded this nostalgic American experience.
Published: Jun. 3, 2022 at 10:45 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - Once a staple of family entertainment, the drive-in movie has largely faded from the scene in recent decades.

In fact, only two authentic drive-in theaters remain open full-time in Nebraska, and of the two, only the Quasar in Valley shows new releases with their eyes on becoming a metro destination.

Many Americans dream of starring on the big screen, but the Karls had dreams of the big screen, under the stars.

“We wanted to spend our retirements at a drive-in,” Jeff Karls said. “We didn’t realize that we would spend our retirements on a drive-in.”

Now in its second year projecting the Karls’ dreams, the Quasar Drive-In Theater off Highway 36 in Valley is an homage to the past with the bells and whistles of today.

“It was really important for me to mix the old and the new and not to fake represent sent all of the old,” said Jenny Karls, architect, and designer who continues to craft the property’s identity. “You know it’s never going to be an exact replica of a drive-in, (so) we could get it as close as we could.” The I-70 Drive-In in Kansas City closed a few years ago after 50 years in operation. That’s where they found some of their snack bar equipment and the 85-foot screen.

But there’s nothing nostalgic about what you see projected on the screen. Jeff Karls said the Quasar is one of the few drive-ins in the country using a laser 4K digital projector.

“I decided to put the money into the picture and it shows,” he said. “It looks like your living room TV lit up at night, there’s no more of the ‘low contrast, low light’ kind of really sketchy drive-in picture.” A decade ago they were inspired by filmmaker April Wright to open their own drive-in, and this year The Quasar is one of eleven across the country to be featured in her follow-up documentary, Back to the Drive-in, which opens in theaters in the fall but will preview Monday, June 6 across the country for one night to celebrate National Drive-In Day.

When filming and researching her first drive-in documentary Going Attractions: the definitive story of the American drive-in movie, she visited over 500 locations in every state except Alaska. She said only about 300 drive-ins remain open across the U.S. today.

Wright said that after a resurgence during the pandemic, many drive-ins are again struggling to survive. But she says that the atmosphere the Karls have created has staying power.

“They were thinking about building and planning it well before COVID-19 ever happened, so they wanted to build a drive-in,” Wright said. “Jenny is an architect so she designed it and when I was tracking their progress I just thought, wow they are building an authentic old drive-in, but new. It’s kind of a blend of the best of all things.”

On a recent Saturday night at The Quasar, the opening weekend of Top Gun: Maverick, almost 400 spaces were filled and 760 tickets sold.

“You know there’s a lot of that nostalgia that people would like to be able to pass down to the next generation and show their kids and grandkids what this is about,” Jeff said. “We’ve already seen the families that come out, bring another two or three families out the next time we see them, and they are coming together...it’s like a big block party (before the show).”

“My goal has always been to make this a family environment, a place that is always convenient for kids and a value for families,” Jenny said. “That’s why we wanted to do it because we have a family and we wanted it for ourselves, so selfishly we’re like ‘well if nobody else will do it, we’ll do it.’”

Wright said the other drive-in she knows of operating in Nebraska is the Sandhills Drive-In in Alliance, where they show second-run films, not current movies like Top Gun: Maverick. But she hopes the Karls’ efforts to keep this family tradition alive, by operating a successful family business, can be part of another resurgence of the experience.

“It sometimes doesn’t even matter what the film is,” Wright said. “It’s just about having this experience that creates a memory. When you’re watching movies at home, even if you’re streaming, it’s hard to distinguish what you watched yesterday or last week, it’s it’s all the same.”

“When you go to a drive-in, you see a movie but you create an experience, you create a memory,” she continued. “You have a good time with your family, with the people that you’ve gone with and I think that’s what’s more important and why people love the drive-ins and remember those experiences.”

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