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Globe's Last Picture Show

GLOBE, Ariz. — Carloads of moviegoers rolled into the Apache Drive In – just as they have been for generations. The theater opened in 1954, and in this location 20 years later. But the crowd didn’t come for some recent Hollywood release. Tonight’s show is the classic film “American Graffiti,” and it’s the Apache’s last show. Ever.

Linda Fugate checked ticket holders in at the gate.

“You guys have a good time,” she said to a family in a shiny, silver convertible. “You’re looking good. Bye!”

Vintage sedans and old-school pickups passed by. Nearly everyone in them was smiling, and most were wearing some nod to the ’50s or ’60s. Imagine posses of poodle skirts and little boys with fake cigarette packs rolled under their shirt sleeves. As the place started to fill up, people were eager to open up and reminisce. That included Jim and Nancy Phillips.

“We don’t remember much about the movies,” Jim said, chuckling.

And why not? Nancy answered that one.

“There were more important things to do,” she said, with a smile.

And those things could only be done where Nancy’s gun-toting father wouldn’t catch the couple. They’ve now been married 56 years. Willy Thomas said he spent some time in backseats, as well. But that’s not the only thing he’ll miss. Thomas fondly recalled sneaking people into the show in the trunk of a car.

He’ll remember the “the fun, the challenge,” he said, “oh, it’s just a lot of growing up that you do in a drive-in that’s part of your life.”

That’s why Thomas encouraged his grandkids to also sneak into tonight’s show – even though they actually had tickets.

Theater co-owner Bob Hollis gets it. He grew up in this business, and took this place over from his father. He feels the nostalgia, too. But that’s not enough to keep the Apache going. Hollis has been in the industry too long not to be practical.

“The drive-in, to me, is about being able to make a living and pay the bills. It’s a business,” he said. “I’ve got to look at it as that way.”

For Hollis, that means not investing more than $100,000 to convert the Apache’s film projector to a digital system. He already put several times that much into his four-screen theater in downtown Globe. But he would never make that money back from the Apache. Not at $10 a carload. Hollis explained that digital is affecting owners of drive-ins and indoor theaters across the country.

“And they just don’t have those finances. They’re going to close,” he said. “A lot of little-town America is going to lose their movie theaters. Already have.”

There are an estimated 356 drive-ins left in America. In the late 1950s, there were more than 4,000. Digital is a recent phenomenon, so it can’t take all the blame. But it certainly didn’t help.

Tonight’s movie was supposed to be that Charles Grodin/Robert De Niro flick, “Midnight Run.” It was partially filmed in Globe. However, 35 millimeter prints of it simply don’t exist anymore. But looking around the Apache’s grounds, maybe that was meant to be. It’s hard to imagine a 1980s crime caper stirring up this much excitement – or a Big Hair Contest.

Women with sky-high bouffants and meticulous curls sauntered across a stage as they tried to rev the crowd up. It worked.

“Number one!” shouted the DJ, to exuberant screams, as a woman with a teased ’do twirled.

There were contests for classic cars and costumes and impersonations of famed disc jockey Wolfman Jack, too. And that was all before the movie even started.

Once it did, it was easy to imagine a busy night in the Apache’s heyday. Families huddling under blankets on lawn chairs, children playing with hula hoops.

Local newspaper publisher Linda Gross looked happy, but tired. She’s the one who made tonight happen. She didn’t see movies here all the time, she said, but knows the drive-in will be missed.

“How do you entertain families for such a cheap price?” she asked. “And I don’t have an answer for that.”

Really, who does? Globe had one – until the Apache’s projector was switched off for the last time.

When senior field correspondent Stina Sieg was 22, she moved to the desert. She hasn’t been the same since. At the time, the Northern California native had just graduated from college and was hankering for wide-open spaces. So she took a leap and wrote to nearly every newspaper in New Mexico until one offered her a job. That’s how she became the photographer for a daily paper in the small town of Silver City. And that’s when she realized how much she loved storytelling. In the years since, the beauty of having people open up and share their stories — and trust her to tell them — has never gotten old to Sieg. Before coming to KJZZ, Sieg was also a writer and photographer at newspapers in Glenwood Springs, Colorado; Moab, Utah; and the Smoky Mountains town of Waynesville, North Carolina. She always had her hand in public radio, too, including hosting Morning Edition on a fill-in basis at WNCW in North Carolina. It’s still the best music station she’s found. When she’s not reporting, chances are Sieg is running, baking, knitting or driving to some far-flung town deep in the desert — just to see what it looks like.