The Northfield Drive-in: Crossing Lines

An invisible line runs through the Northfield Drive-in, a boundary where one set of rules ceases to be relevant and another takes its place. The division was intentional. The theater’s ticket booth and concession stand do business in New Hampshire, a state with no income tax, while most of the parking lot lies in Massachusetts territory. This state straddling is smart business and adds to the theater’s quirky charm, but today, the drive-in is facing a new line, a generational one.

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In the early 1990s, Mitchell and Carla Shakour took over the Northfield Drive-in Theater. In all those years the couple has been absent from the show a grand total of three weekends. They even planned the births of their two children Gabriel (now 24) and Lili (now 22) to align with the theater’s off-season. When the kids grew older, the family planned their vacations for winter, when the drive-in closed. Whether they wanted it to or not, the drive-in became a point which the family orbited around. But the Shakours didn’t walk blindly into the business, they knew the demands of a drive-in.

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Mitchell Shakour comes from a drive-in family. He grew up at his parents’ flagship theater in Keene, NH and often visited his extended family at their drive-ins. One of his earliest memories is of his first job at the Keene theater—filling drinks at the soda station, perched atop a milk carton. “My cousins and I never needed a babysitter,” Mitchell said, “we worked at the drive-in all night, slept in until the afternoon, and then went back to the theater to clean up and start again for the next night.” Carla, a veterinarian by trade, met Mitchell in college through one of his cousins and knew of the family business. She might not have realized that marrying Mitchell meant she’d run a small restaurant in the Northfield’s concession stand along with her work as a veterinarian.

After nearly three decades of dedication, Mitchell and Carla are considering the future of the Northfield. In many ways the theater is unique—it’s the only drive-in in two states, the movie The Cider House Rules used it as a backdrop, their concession stand offers a killer menu, including Maple Syrup Mayo Sweet potato fries (Carla’s invention), and most notably, the Shakours have created a familiar environment around the theater. Locals arrive at six-thirty when the gates open, spread out their blankets and lawn chairs and just hangout. Kids play on the playground in the shadow of the screen while teenagers in dirty, jacked-up trucks haunt the back rows. It’s comfortable. But the Northfield is also emblematic of rural drive-ins in the Twenty-First Century.

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One of the biggest challenges facing small-town drive-ins in the way they gain access to first-run movies. Film distribution contracts force the Shakours to play the same movie for three or four weeks. A drive-in with multiple screens can move an older feature to a smaller parking lot and bring in new, money-making movies more often in the short summer season. Those distribution contracts also require a hefty percentage of the ticket sales, meaning most of the theater’s profits come from the concession stand. In a rural area, with a small population to draw from, there is a limit to the number of folks who will come out to the drive-in and a limit to the number of hamburgers they’ll eat. Making the operation work in those conditions requires a herculean effort. “Five times a day I think about giving up,” Mitchell admits

The next generation of Shakours, Gabriel and Lili, stand as the most obvious inheritors of the Northfield. Gabe is a tech guy whose life at the drive-in has inspired him to work on the production side of film. He does a lot of the photography and social media for the theater but wants to go the Los Angles for film school. Lili, to her surprise, wants to take over the responsibility of the Northfield. “As a teen, I absolutely didn’t want it,” Lili remembers. I wanted to leave New Hampshire and not be tied to a drive-in.” But the thought of telling the regulars that the drive-in would be closing broke her heart. “It’s important to them.”

At twenty-two, Lili is young to take over a business, but much of her life experience has been at the drive-in. Like her dad, she grew up at her family’s theater.

As a child, Lili held two jobs at the Northfield. The first put her in the ticket booth with Mitchell, passing dog treats through the car windows to all canine customers. For her second position, she rotated to the playground, patrolling the area to make sure all the other children were having a good time. As an adult facing the responsibility of running a seventy-year-old enterprise, she’s developing plans to put her own mark on the Northfield.

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Along with her boyfriend, Ross Warner, Lili hopes to make forward-thinking changes like taking the Northfield plastic-free (they already use paper straws and boxed water) and opening the space for music events. She’s noticed that retro movie nights organized this summer by her, and brother Gabe have pulled in new customers. A separate ice cream stand might add the concession revenue. Lili, Ross, and Gabe all pay attention to other drive-ins across the country on social media and study the way some theaters have tried to modernize drive-ins without losing the vintage charm. And if passion is the magic potion to keeping a rural, single-screen, drive-in movie theater alive, Lili’s got it. The Northfield is a part of her family and she’s witnessed first-hand what it means to the community.

Mitchell Shakour encourages his children to test their ideas on the theater and is including Lili in more of the business aspect, but he isn’t convinced it’s fair to ask his daughter to take over. “It’s so much work,” he sighs.

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After Mitchell closes down the ticket booth, a task he’s completed an incalculable number of summer nights in his life, he sits down in a lawn chair opposite the projection booth with his children and his friends to catch the tail end of Spider Man and the beginning of Men in Black. It’s not about the movies, at a drive-in, it rarely is about the movies. Here, he tells me his theory: “The reason people love this is because it harkens back to a time when people could just be happy with their family. It was simpler. Nostalgia erases the bad stuff. This is a time machine to a happy time. Now, people don’t believe in anything, but they believe in this. And I feel like we’re doing something good with that. That’s what I would be handing down.”

 

Visit the Northfield:

981 Northfield Rd, Winchester, NH 03470

(603) 239-4054

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