“A woman,” I thought, “finally.”
In my quest to document stories of America’s surviving drive-in movie theaters, I quickly realized that the niche industry is dominated by men. And by “dominated,” I mean except for a few husband and wife teams, I could not find a single drive-in theater controlled by a woman. Women are not absent from drive-ins; I’ve met women who’ve worked the ticket booth of their theater for decades and women who bear the responsibility of knowing the secret recipe to the perfect French fries. But a woman alone at the top of the drive-in food chain remained difficult to find. The longer I searched for a woman-owned drive-in and couldn’t find one, the more important finding one became. I wanted to know how a woman in charge changed the dynamic of a theater, or if it did at all, if they talked to me differently. From the name, Becky’s Drive-in Theater in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley sounded like my chance to find out.
Before I completed any research, even a basic internet search, of Becky’s, I created an image of Becky in my mind: a salt-of-the-earth, scrappy businesswoman who’d shin-kicked her way into the field for a love of cinema and her community. My daydreams cast 1940s femme-fatale-turned-director and all-around badass, Ida Lupino to play her likeness. If Becky still lived, we’d connect instantly, and she’d probably drag an oxygen tank behind her in penance for all the Camel butts she’d tossed outside the projection room door. Then I Googled “Becky’s Drive-in Theater” and discovered that “Becky” was a nickname given to William D. Beck.
William Beck could not answer my questions about gender and drive-in management—in part because he was a man and also because he died in 1987. After Becky’s death, the theater passed to his children: sons Darrell, Dale, and Dennis and daughters Mary and Cindy.
Through the drive-in grapevine (with around 300 theaters left, the world of drive-ins is small), I heard that the Beck child most responsible for the day-to-day of the theater and the person to talk to about the theater is Cindy Beck, now Cindy Deppe. My female drive-in proprietor after all.
A Different Kind of Management:
Cindy Deppe does not present herself as a femme fatal and she does not drag her oxygen in a tank behind her. She inhales and exhales without assistance and approaches her family business with genuine affection. Some her of earliest memories include Rockwellian scenes of chasing fireflies between the theater’s speaker poles, only noticing the images on the screen if Elvis and his floppy pompadour made an appearance. She never told me outright, but I gathered that her goal as an owner and manager of that drive-in today is to create a place where new generations can create equally malty-sweet, all-American memories.
Deppe leads with kindness, not over the top, theatrical, persuasive kindness, but the real thing. I’d briefly talked to her on the phone and texted back and forth with her to arrange a meeting time and she greeted me with a hug. As she showed me around the Snack Shack (home to some of the most beautiful funnel cakes you’ll ever witness) Deppe hugged her way through the building. She introduced each of the young teenagers working behind the counter, careful not to leave anyone out. When I admired the retro logo on one of the t-shirts in their gift shop, Deppe asked me what size I wore and gave me one.
I could see how this kindness and her soft-spoken nature might overshadow the businesswoman in Deppe. She occasionally defers to her husband or two sons when talking about technical bits of information, like the functioning of their digital projector or social media marketing, but Deppe is clearly at the helm of the theater operation. Throughout my night there, I found her in the field talking to customers, cooking in the concession stand, checking stock in the snack-shack, and figuring the numbers in the ticket booth. If an inch within the bounds of the drive-in is unfamiliar to Deppe, it’s in the projection booth and that’s not for lack of interest.
Growing up, Cindy Beck wanted to be a projectionist like her dad. She wanted to manage the reels of 35mm film flying through their massive film projector at twenty-four frames per second, but she was told in subtle hints and redirections that “projectionist” was not a career for a woman. Even with this discouragement, she put herself through a correspondence course in photography, getting as close as she was allowed to the skills needed to run the booth.
When Cindy and her siblings took ownership of the drive-in in 1981, Cindy had the vision to restore the theater from its declining days in the 1970s to the family-friendly place where she caught fireflies in the palms of her small sweaty hands and swooned over Elvis. She invited a local art teacher to paint murals on the buildings and expanded the playground to include train rides and a larger play area. Under her management, the theater added a second screen to capitalize on more opening weekend business and a larger concession stand to expand their menu.
On the weekend I visited Becky’s, Toy Story 4 dominated drive-in screens across the country. In total, I saw Woody and the gang six times. But I only know of one drive-in that held a toy drive for children in the local hospital and a make your own “Forky” event to promote the movie (if you haven’t seen the movie, Forky is a spork the girl glues googly eyes to and turns into a toy). The plan came from Deppe’s marketing brain.
The Answer to My Search:
Before I found Cindy Deppe, I wanted to know if a woman would run a drive-in differently than a man. With only one example, I still don’t think I can answer that question and I’m still on the search for more women running drive-ins. But if Deppe’s goal is to create an environment for families to create their own memories, I can give you this anecdote from one of her customers:
Far in the back row, relaxing on a blow-up mattress in the bed of a truck so tall I raised my camera above my head to photograph them, I met Robby, Anne Marie, and their young son Gabe. I asked what brought them out to the drive-in.
“Me and Gabe were out fishing today,” Robby said, “and we just found out we have a new baby on the way, so I asked Gabe what we should do for Mommy. We haven’t been in years, but we decided we should take her to the drive-in.”
“Gabe came home,” Anne Marie added, “and asked me to go on a date with them to Becky’s.”