The owner of Iowa’s oldest operating drive-in movie theatre says he’ll keep the business going, despite missing out on an opportunity to get a free digital projector. The Valle Drive-in in Newton was part of a contest by Honda, which has now given away 9 free digital projectors to drive-ins.

The latest 4 winners were announced this  morning and were determined by on-line voting at www.projectdrive-in.com. Valle owner Jim Mertz says some of his young employees entered Valle in the contest. “I really didn’t expect we would win, but the kids had fun with the contest and I’m sure they got a lot of new customers,” Mertz says. It can cost $80,000 to upgrade to digital projection.

Because of the cost, many of the 5,000 drive-ins left across the country face closure as the movie industry switches from film to digital at the end of the year. Mertz isn’t so sure the switchover will come that soon. “The day is coming when we’ll eventually have to (switch to digital), but the studios keep pushing things back, so I don’t think there’s any definite date when they’re going to quit film,” Mertz says.

The Valle Drive-in opened in 1949. Mertz has been the owner since 1976. When the switch to digital comes, Mertz insists the drive-in in Newton will stay in business. He says the theatre still draws good crowds. “People come from a long ways away because a lot of kids today have never seen a drive-in theatre and there are only four left in Iowa. We’re the only one in central Iowa,” Mertz says.

Iowa’s other drive-in theatres are located in Maquoketa in northeast Iowa, Grandview in southeast Iowa, and Superior in far northwest Iowa. The website for the 61 Drive-in in Maquoketa states it’s the Midwest’s first drive-in to feature digital projection. The drive-ins receiving the all digital projectors from Honda are in Cadet, Missouri; Elizabethton, Tennessee; Monetta, South Carolina; and Ocala, Florida.

(Reporting by Randy Van, KCOB, Newton)