An American Dream: Owner turns drive-in into an oasis for groups during pandemic

Logan, Tony, Colton, Thayne and Megan Rutherford, of Cody, watch the feature film at the American Dream Drive-in Friday. Twins Logan and Colton were celebrating their 10th birthdays and the family enjoyed cake from the back of the truck. Photo by Mark Davis, Powell Tribune.

POWELL – On Friday — the weekend before the official opening of the American Dream Drive-in — business was hopping.

Shawn Blajszczak was at the gate early. He worked quickly, setting up displays and sales tables full of hats and information for his cause, the Mule Deer Foundation. Due to social distancing, the foundation was forced to cancel its annual banquets. Those are the major source of funding for the nonprofit, which works to restore mule deer herds and educate the public about wildlife conservation.

Blajszczak saw many causes like churches and schools realize the advantages of the facility during the COVID-19 pandemic, offering a way for groups to come together safely.

But when he called to see if he could rent what was Wyoming’s first and now is its last drive-in theater, he was surprised at the price.

“It’s a small number, but basically I’m just paying the utilities for the night. That’s all they’re charging,” Blajszczak said.

He was thankful for the assistance. The night’s entertainment, mule deer hunting films provided free of charge by Eastman’s Hunting Journal, would only bring in a small fraction of the money of a banquet. But every single dollar will help — especially this year.

“I didn’t push real hard because I know people are hurting,” Blajszczak said. “So I’m not pushing businesses for donations right now because I know they’re trying to keep their doors open, too.”

Everybody is in the same boat, he said. “We all count on this time of year to make most of our money.”

Kathleen Heny was in the concession stand watching the sky, hoping it would clear. But, nobody knows her by that name. Everybody just calls her Pokey.

She bought into the drive-in in 2004, becoming sole owner in 2007. It was called the Vali back then. The first thing she did was change the color scheme from yellow to red, white and blue and renamed it the American Dream.

“Isn’t everyone’s American dream to own a drive-in?” she asked.

Heny has had her fair share of challenges. A “micro-tornado” blew half of the concession stand across the highway and a bull on the loose knocked down her fence, to name a couple.

In 1955 — well before her time — a storm knocked down the original screen. It was rebuilt and has been standing tall and strong since. “Wind scares me more than anything,” Heny said.

The biggest challenge came in 2013, when she was told she’d need to change her projection system to digital or shut the doors.

“It cost me more than the entire place,” Heny recalled. “You either went digital, or you went dark because they weren’t producing film anymore.”

But beyond those changes, “it’s been the same since I worked here in high school in the 80s,” said employee Diana Fulton.

High school kids still make up the bulk of the part-time help, though it may be different this year; everything is.

With opening day arriving on Friday, Heny is still trying to figure out how she can serve the all-American line-up — everything from pop and candy, to chili dogs and giant tubs of hot, yellow popcorn. She made a large batch, filling the concession stand with a wonderful, buttery smell. But only Fulton, some immediate family and herself could enjoy the light, tender kernels until she finds out how to make it safe for her customers.

Heny tries to keep her movies “family-friendly.” The R-rated films limit those who pack the car full of kids for a night out.

As if Heny needed more challenges, the selection of movies will be limited this year.

“Nobody wants to release a movie because their numbers will look horrible,” she said.

So the American Dream will show classics. Opening weekend they’ll show The Call of the Wild. Following weeks will feature previous releases like Troll, E.T. and Jason Bourne classics. They don’t show double-features very often. Start time during the summer can be as late as 9:45 p.m. “It’s so stinking late here that a double feature just isn’t reasonable,” Heny said.

Adding a second feature means the staff would be on duty as late as 3 a.m. But that doesn’t stop people from starting a line much earlier. Due to the rarity of drive-ins, folks will come from all over to have the experience.

“We had some kids from France. I came over one night and I’m like, why is someone here at five o’clock? I walked over and said, ‘Did you guys need some help?’” she recalled. “They said, ‘No, we’re just waiting for the movie.”

But those keeping the gates open are locals.

“We have great customers — families that come every week,” Heny said. “They don’t care what the movie is. They’re coming.”

Heny is quick to accommodate special requests. Some travel here in RVs and need a place to stay the night. Others bring big groups.

“A church comes a lot on Sunday nights and they bring up a semi with four or five couches on the flatbed,” she explained.

Until the season opener Friday night, there will be a flurry of activity at the business. Speakers need to be replaced or repaired and upcoming events — including graduations, confirmations and parties — need to be set. The attendees will all be in their cars, but at least they’ll be together, Heny said. “We’re just trying to help people out.”