Thinking Outside the Screen: John Watzke and the Ocala Drive-in

Daylight was already sinking down the main screen when I arrived at the Ocala Drive-in. Owner John Watzke had agreed to meet for an interview but was running late, leaving me time to explore. Walking around a drive-in during the day feels like being backstage at a theater; you have to be “in” to get invited.

The Ocala Drive-in in Daylight

The Ocala Drive-in in Daylight

I snapped pictures as cars dropped off employees in red t-shirt uniforms and repairmen in dusty trucks arrived, bringing the nocturnal business back to life. A yellow mustang parked next to mine and hardly paid it any attention until the driver stepped out and asked me, “You work here?”

“No.” I snapped more pictures. “You?”

“Sorta. I do the digital marketing. You gotta cell phone?” The man spat out his staccato sentences like a character in a 1930’s gangster movie. He asked me to text a number and watched my screen until the first message appeared with the theater’s weekly showtimes. “I do that. Set all that up. I’m really a comedian though. I work mostly in Orlando. I’m here to talk to John about doing a comedy show at the theater, under the screen. You know Joe Pesci?”

The digital marketer/comedian launched into the famous “Do you think I’m funny?” scene from Goodfellas, which is a pretty uncomfortable monologue to have reenacted two feet in front of your face. I took a step back and he switched to Bill Clinton. He pointed his Clinton Thumb/Fist at me as he predictably testified that “He did not have sexual relations with that woman” under the neon shine of the concession stand lights.

Watzke appeared in his work truck and I spared me another Nineties impression. “We hit the thousand?” He asked the man before even closing his door.

The digital marketer/comedian answered in his normal voice, “Not yet. Close. Think we might get there tonight”

“Alright, we’ll talk later.” Watzke lit a cigarette and turned to me, “You here to do the interview?”

The Show Must Go On:

John Watzke is a third-generation projectionist in his late sixties. His oral history lesson in drive-ins is made all the more interesting by his distantly New Orleans drawl. Eight years ago, he discovered a defunct Ocala Drive-In on Google Maps’ Street View. He bought what was left and began fighting back the vines scaling the screen and the young pines sprouting in the parking lot. Within a few months, he had the drive-in ready for its second grand opening, more than sixty years after its first. “We opened without any advertising and still had so many cars lined up, we had to ask folks to come back the next day.” He reminisced.

Stunned, the boy asked, “John, you’d still play the movie if I died?”

Since then, he’s built a dedicated following. Over 45,000 people follow the drive-in’s Facebook page and fans regularly travel over two hours to spend their night at the Central Florida theater.  This success stems from two incalculable factors: Watzke’s intense passion for drive-in movie theaters and his out-of-the-box schemes to bring in customers.

His passion can be captured in a single anecdote:

In the early days of the theater’s renaissance, Watzke spent weekdays working on the Gulf Coast and trusted the projection booth—still running film at that time—to a local teenager. He’d commute back to the theater for the busy weekend shows.

One Saturday, Watzke returned to the booth to find the aperture frame out of place, so he called his young assistant. The boy immediately explained, “Oh yeah, I moved it because—”

“Stop right there, son. Never move a thing.” Watzke interrupted. “Because imagine this, you’re on the school bus one day, going home, and the bus goes over a railroad track.”

“Yeah?” The boy listened.

“Bam! A train hits the bus and you’re all dead.”

“Ok?”

“How would I play the movie if I couldn’t find the aperture frame?”

Stunned, the boy asked, “John, you’d still play the movie if I died?”

“We’ll have a moment of silence for you at intermission, but the show must go on.”

A Drive-in Tradition:

Even during the brief golden era of drive-ins, theatre owners often tried to draw larger crowds by introducing new activities like mini-golf courses, arcades, and playgrounds. John Watzke carries on this tradition; he constantly dreams up ideas to promote his drive-in.

Over the hum of the digital projector, Watzke explained some of the unique opportunities he offers customers, like prom-posals. If both sets of parents agree, Watzke will work with a young man to create a prom-posal message and project it on the 90-foot-tall screen during the pre-show. “If the little lady says ‘yes,’ they’ll both go back to school and tell everyone about what happened at the drive-in. If she says ‘no,’ she’ll still go to school the next day and tell everyone. Either way, it’s good advertising.”

He started hosting an annual Girl Scout camp for the same reason. The girls camp on the dirt parking lot, watch a movie, eat some popcorn, establish a relationship with the drive-in, and then go around telling all their friends about it. Watzke believes in the drive-in experience; he’s just got to get the audience to drive through the ticket booth and the theater will keep them coming back. “If you go to a walk-in, it’s a movie. If it’s good, you might remember you saw it a few years later,” he told me. “If you go to a drive-in, you’ll remember the movie forever and who you saw it with, the car you were driving, what the sky was like—it’s a memory.”

Watzke behind his desk in the projection booth.

Watzke behind his desk in the projection booth.

On some invisible queue, he paused himself, “One second.”

I watched him rise from his desk in the corner of the projection booth and take a microphone from the side of the projector. He spoke and his voice was everywhere, omnipresent in every speaker and every car radio, like God with a New Orleans accent. “Please visit the concession stand,” he encouraged. From memory, he listed every item on the extensive menu, then replaced the microphone, and returned to his office chair.

“I’m thinking of doing a full dinner on weeknights,” Watzke said. “Chicken potatoes, the whole thing…” I struggled to keep up with my notes as he spoke and worried my recorder might croak before he finished explaining all the ideas swirling around his imagination.

Dinner and a Drive-In and a Comedy Show

A few days after our interview, I received my first text update from the digital marketer’s system. I had to admit, it did prompt me to consider a night at the drive-in, but they weren’t showing anything I wanted to see that weekend. A couple of weeks later, my phone “pinged” with another alert advertising a Valentine’s Day special: dinner for two on the patio (lasagna or chicken alfredo), a personalized greeting on the screen, and a live comedy show (guest impersonations Donald Trump and Bill Clinton). Watzke hadn’t wasted any time in setting up his dinner night and the digital marketer had successfully lobbied for the comedy show. I had to see how it all came together.

Valentine’s night I drove in, not for the special deal, but for Lego Movie 2 on the second screen and my dog as my date. By the time I arrived, the comedy show was already well on its way—the comedians performing at the bottom of the screen and also appearing on the screen.

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I peeked around the concession stand to the patio and found it crowded with Valentine’s lovers. More couples sat parked in their cars, eating Chicken Alfredo from take out boxes. I headed into the stand for a slice of pizza. There wasn’t much of a line, but through the kitchen window, I spotted Watzke and his team preparing the dinners. They moved quickly, like the lunch shift at a packed diner. I wondered if he’d notice me, but it only took the girl behind the counter a Nano-second to remove my pizza from the warming light and toss it on a paper plate. I wanted to know how the night seemed to be shaping up, but Watzke looked too busy to ask, so I bit my pizza off the plate and pushed the exit door open with my back.

As I returned to my car, I heard an uproar of laughter from the patio. For a second, I questioned if this troop of local comedians could really be that funny, but then I realized, it didn’t matter. Lots of people do dinner and movie, or dinner and a show, for Valentine’s, but not under stars in a seventy-year-old drive-in theater—truly funny or not, a great movie or not, it was unique. The couples would remember and re-tell the story even if the relationship didn’t last. “Remember that time we did dinner and movie at the drive-in?” Or, “I once went on a Valentine’s date with this guy at the drive-in.” Just as John Watzke said, their memories are all the advertising he needs.

Plan Your Visit:

The Ocala Drive-in is open seven days a week, 365 days a year (they stayed open through Hurricane Irma until the power went out). Check for showtimes.

Phone: (352) 629-1325

https://ocaladrivein.info/