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Another one bites the dust 17 Nov 2007 05:59 #16756

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Curtain to fall on drive-in; Diamond State to close next year

Diamond State Drive-In on U.S. 13 near Felton will be closing at the end of the 2008 season. The drive-in has been open for nearly 60 years and is the only one left on the Delmarva Peninsula. The Journal/Jamie-Leigh Bissett
By Jamie-Leigh Bissett, The Journal
FELTON — After nearly 60 years, Diamond State Drive-In Theater near Felton will close forever when it concludes the 2008 season, ending an era in Delaware.

Donald C. Brown Jr., co-operator of the drive-in, said the 8-acre property on the southbound side of U.S. 13 was transferred to the sons of Mildred and Albert Steele, who purchased it in 1949, after the death of Mr. Steele in July.

Mr. Brown said despite making an offer to purchase the land himself, Kenneth and Robert Steele have decided not to renew the lease which expires next year, and will instead clear the property in order to put it up for sale.

“The site will be cleared by 2009 and they’re putting it on the market for $1.2 million,” he said.

Kenneth Steele, who lives in Smyrna, confirmed that he and his brother will not be renewing the lease for the drive-in and will instead put the land up for sale.

“We hate to do this, but at this point I don’t see what we can do. We don’t have a lot of choices,” he said.

Mr. Steele admitted that money was a factor in their decision, but it’s not because of greed, he said.

“My brother and I are close to retirement age — we have to look out for our futures.

“I’m going to be 59 this year, and my brother is 63. If we were younger, we would consider running it, but at this stage in our lives, do we want to take on commitment?

“It’s not something I could do,” he said.

Mr. Brown said the decision to close the drive-in has “certainly had a big impact on me. This year has been difficult. It created a lot of distraction and anxiety.”

He also said the decision will affect the drive-in’s surrounding community as well.

“This is an issue of property rights with something that is considered a community asset. How do you balance the interest of both when the actions of the private property owner compromise the value of that property to the community?

“It’s one of the great issues facing this state today as its limited historical and cultural assets are sacrificed to development.”

Mr. Brown said he and his co-operator, Patricia Creigh, are seeking to purchase land to open another drive-in, but with the increase in property values, the amount of land one can acquire is limiting.

The landmark that is Diamond State was the first of its kind in Delaware and remains the last one standing on the Delmarva Peninsula.

According to a flyer put together by Mr. Brown and Ms. Creigh, the theater opened in August 1949.

The flyer said in the early days of the drive-in, Delaware blue laws prohibited the exhibition of movies on Sundays, so the Steeles decided to improvise.

A wooden stage at the front of the movie screen played host to several musical acts throughout the years including Bill Haley, Tex Ritter and Albert Steele’s own Blue Hen Ramblers.

Then, in 1966, the drive-in was leased to a Baltimore-based company called R/C Theatres, which changed the format to adult entertainment.

With the change in format, came a change in the theater’s name from Diamond State to Hi-Way 13 Drive-In.

By the mid-1980s, however, the market for drive-in movies, including adult movies, had decreased substantially and the theater closed in 1986.

Then, in 1995 Mr. Brown and Ms. Creigh pumped new life into the drive-in when they showed up from New England and began operating Diamond State.

Mr. Brown said the drive-in will most likely remain open for another month this year.

The theater is expected to open early in 2008, but by this time next year, Diamond State will be concluding its operations.

Mr. Brown said the loss of the drive-in because of development is a “tragedy,” but if the loss helps shed light on preserving other valuable landmarks in Delaware, the outcome would be positive.

For his part, Mr. Steele said the drive-in was a big part of his life and recognizes the affect it had on so many others in the community.

“It will definitely be missed,” he said. “But, you can’t stop progress.”

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