The first time Michael Andelman went to the drive-in theater in Mendon, he was 6 or 7 years old. Clad in pajamas, he and his brothers watched “Dumbo” from the car and drifted off to sleep long before the second feature of the night got rolling.
He was hooked.
“If you said to me when I was 6 years old, ‘What do you want to do with your life?’ I really think I would have said I want to own a drive-in movie theater,” Andelman said.
On Friday, Andelman realized this childhood ambition, when he and brothers Dave and Dan — the trio behind the Phantom Gourmet brand — bought the drive-in theater that was the scene of their favorite childhood outings. Terms of the sale were not disclosed.
“We hand-picked who we wanted to sell this drive-in to, to carry on our legacy,” said Sue Swanson, former co-owner of the Mendon Twin Drive-In, as the theater has been called since it added a second screen in 1998. “We had tears in our eyes today when we passed it on — we still love the business.”
Swanson and partner Kathy Gorman, who also have childhood memories of coming to the Mendon drive-in, bought the theater in 1987. Now that the business is in new hands, they will stay on board for the next year to help the Andelmans get into the swing of running a drive-in theater. For the first season, the brothers plan to leave the theater unchanged, said Michael Andelman, who brings his three kids to the theater four or five times every summer.
“My son is more interested in opening day at the drive-in than opening day of the Red Sox,” he said. This year, the theater will open on April 9, showing “Rio 2” and a second film that is yet to been determined, he said.
The Mendon Twin Drive-in is one of just three drive-in theaters left in Massachusetts; the others are the Wellfleet Drive-in on Cape Cod and the Leicester Triple Drive-in outside of Worcester. The Mendon theater was built in 1953 and opened in 1954 during the heyday of the drive-in.
By the late 1950s, there were more than 4,000 drive-ins across the country; today there are 357, according to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association. For those that remain, however, business is generally good, said John Vincent Jr., organization president and Wellfleet Drive-In co-owner.
“What probably did them in the ’60s and ’70s was there were too many of them,” he said. “The future looks quite bright for the drive-ins that are left.”
Swanson said the Mendon theater does a solid business, selling out every weekend during the summer. And the business is positioned well for the future, she said. With the shift in the movie industry from film to digital, Swanson and Gorman converted to digital projectors two years ago.
After they learn the ropes, the Andelman brothers have plans to bring some Phantom Gourmet flair to the business. Though he wasn’t ready to share the details, chief executive Dave Andelman said that there could be cross-promotions with the Phantom Gourmet brand, which includes the eponymous TV show, a gift card business, and an events division.
The goal, he said, is to make the “best use” of the 16-acre property, some of which is unused. The core of the business, however, will remain the same: first-run movies at affordable prices. Currently the price is $25 per car.
And the concession stand will keep serving a wide selection of snacks, Mexican food, and classic soda fountain drinks. The snack bar is such a part of the experience at the theater, in fact, that the brothers featured it on Phantom Gourmet about 10 years ago.
The Andelmans said they hope to strengthen the business further by using their Phantom Gourmet platform to spread the word. “When we let people know this thing is there,” Dave Andelman said, “I think they are going to come and they are going to have the best time.”