Some people work a second job and call it moonlighting. John Nagelschmidt ’66 means it literally.
Since 1961 — summers as a SUNY Oswego student, and on the side throughout a 30-year career as a teacher — Nagelschmidt has been screening stars while working under the stars at the Midway Drive-In. In 1987, he bought the outdoor theatre, halfway between Oswego and Fulton, on Route 48 in Minetto. This year marks his 50th anniversary at Midway.
It’s one of only a handful of drive-in theatres left. In their 1950s heyday, 4,063 dotted the American landscape. Today there are 374 across the country, according to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association.
At their peak, nearly 200 drive-ins thrived in New York state. Less than 30 remain, and Nagelschmidt has a hand in two: as sole owner of Midway and a partner in the Black River Drive-In in Watertown.
The outdoor theatres evoke images of mid-century nostalgia: mom, dad and kids in pajamas, watching Lassie movies in the station wagon; a bulky speaker affixed to the door; soda cups and popcorn boxes dancing across the screen; mosquito coils for sale at the concession stand; teenage couples intent on acting out love scenes like the ones on film.
It was into this world that Nagelschmidt stepped in 1961. He had just been accepted to Oswego, having won a merit scholarship, surprising everyone — including the guidance counselor who told him to stop kidding around and get back to class. The Oswego High School senior trekked up the hill to the college and applied.
Since the scholarship covered tuition but not books, he set about to earn some money. When a cross-country teammate who worked at Midway told him about an opening, Nagelschmidt took a chance. He started work in the concession stand that summer and has since done every job at the outdoor theatre.
Going with the flow
Nagelschmidt is an easy-going, soft-spoken guy who takes things as they come. An education major with certification in earth science and physics at Oswego, he did his student teaching at Fulton Junior High.
“They were relatively pleased with me,” he says. “When there was an opening at the high school, they suggested I talk to the principal and they found a spot for me over there. I kind of went with the flow.”
He would go with that flow for nearly 30 years, working summers at the theatre and teaching, first physical science and then earth science, at G.Ray Bodley High School until his retirement in 1995.
“Throughout college it was very convenient, working in the summer, and teaching was the same schedule,” he says of his Midway job. “Sunday nights could be a little interesting. We would run the first two features, and then run the first one over again if some people came in late. I would be there until 3 a.m.” and get up early to teach on Monday morning.
Admittedly a night owl, Nagelschmidt still enjoys screening that late showing, usually sending his staff home after the second flick and running the projector himself.
There are about 15 employees: a couple doing maintenance, a projectionist, and a ticket taker. The rest work the concession stand. While Nagelschmidt was teaching, many were his students. Now the second generation is on board, some the children of those he taught.
Nagelschmidt himself wears a lot of different hats at the drive-in and his weeks are busy. He orders and picks up supplies, chooses movies, does the advertising, keeps the books and performs maintenance at the theatre.
“But I never go to work,” he says. “When it becomes work, I’m done!”
Nagelschmidt suspects that he would long ago have tired of the routine if it were a 12-month operation, instead of the current mid-April to early-November season. “So far each year when spring rolls around I’m eager to go another year,” he says. “The same can be said for those 30 years of teaching and the recharge that came with summers, but that was more like work.”
On movie nights, he hangs out at the concession stand and chats with customers. And there are a healthy number of them. Seasonal attendance averages 30,000, and in the next couple of years, he expects the two millionth customer to pass through the gates.
Midway has a lot of regulars, many of whom are Nagelschmidt’s former students and their families. If they miss a weekend, they will give him an excuse for their absence. “All of them obviously love drive-ins,” he says. “They go out on the road and come back and report on the other theatres they go to.”
Popcorn and pizza
The menu has changed quite a bit since Nagelschmidt first tied on an apron at the concession stand in 1961. Back then the food was simple: hot dogs, popcorn, soda, ice cream novelties and potato chips.
Popcorn is still the biggest seller, but Midway’s homemade pizza comes in a close second. Cheese fries are big, and customers love Midway’s own version of the Texas hot. He’d like to expand the menu even more, but space is limited. As it is, they use every nook and cranny of the historic snack bar.
“We keep it simple and good,” Nagelschmidt says. “We pride ourselves on the fact that our food is cooked to order. It’s good quality food.”
He’s upgraded the viewing experience, too, taking on new technology as it becomes available, while retaining the nostalgic look and feel of the operation. Films run on the original 1948 Century projectors, modified to accommodate updated sound technology. Since the drive-in opened, about 5,000 films have been shown, totaling nearly 245 million feet of film. That’s 46,000 miles, or twice around the earth, the former science teacher notes.
New xenon lamps give a brighter look to the images on the original screen, which was expanded once in the 1950s to accommodate the wider Cinemascope.
And since Nagelschmidt has long done away with the bulky speakers that hung on the windows of the car doors and sound is broadcast on an FM channel, viewers open their car windows and sit on the grass, hoods of cars and backs of pick up trucks, adding to the party atmosphere. “It’s like tailgating, but we don’t allow alcohol,” he stresses. “We like to keep a nice, family atmosphere.”
Family is important to Nagelschmidt. He lives just six miles from where he grew up, and SUNY Oswego is a family tradition. His son, John Nagelschmidt ’02, was a communications major and is on staff at WRVO-FM on campus. Daughter Heidi Nagelschmidt M ’04 earned her master’s degree at Oswego and teaches at Fulton, following in her father’s footsteps.
Looking to the future, Nagelschmidt foresees challenges that could spell the end of drive-ins unless they are able to adapt. Instead of 18-minute reels of film, movies will be delivered in digital format. Some theatres have already adapted.
An even bigger issue is 3-D — is it a phenomenon worth investing thousands of dollars to embrace, or a passing fad?
Nagelschmidt predicts his Watertown operation — which he co-owns with former student Loren Knapp — will adapt more quickly to the digital revolution.
The two rebuilt the Black River Drive-In from the bottom up, doing all the work themselves.
It’s a DIY work ethic rooted in Nagelschmidt’s background. His father ran Johnny’s Fix-It Shop in Oswego. The business card read, “We mend anything … but broken hearts.”
John Jr. and his brother were Johnny’s official dismantlers — but their father insisted they had to know how to put anything back together. Now Nagelschmidt puts that knowledge to use at Midway.
“Very rarely will I call in a contractor,” he says. “I like to do things myself. That’s probably why I got into physics at Oswego — it kind of makes the world go round.”
Nagelschmidt’s influences at Oswego included Norris Goldsmith, who taught freshman physics and had worked on the Manhattan Project; Richard Shineman in chemistry (“a good man”), Raymond Schneider of geology and Bob Sykes of meteorology (“the father of lake effect snow around here”).
But while reminiscing is fun, Nagelschmidt doesn’t like to live in the past. He’s always looking ahead, attending yearly conventions of the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association to learn better techniques for running the Midway. He already had websites (MidwayDriveIn.com and BlackRiverDriveIn.com) and as a result of last year’s convention, is now on Facebook with just shy of 5,000 “fans.”
“The key is finding a way to get the word out,” he says, and especially with the soldiers at Fort Drum and other young patrons, the Web and social media are the way to go.
It’s an irony that’s not lost on Nagelschmidt. “Even though you think of drive-ins as old school,” he says, “modern technology has helped to bring them back.”
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What a wonderful tribute to both a great guy and one of Central New York’s most welcoming landmarks, the Midway Drive-In!