HUNLOCK CREEK — It’s certainly not a stretch to say that it’s been an odd few years for the entertainment industry (and for everyone in general), but the Garden Drive-In has been thrown many a curve ball in its 70 years.
Generations of ownership and loyal employees have continued to knock ’em out of the park, however, and will celebrate the theater’s 70th anniversary next week.
Doug and Kim Barbacci currently own the venue.
“Kim’s folks bought the theater in 1986, so, Kim and I operated the theater for 100 years now,” Doug told a reporter with a laugh.
“When we started to see some folks come in with their children, and then not long after that, you’d see those kids bringing their kids in … you just look at ’em and you just nod and they would nod. You realize it’s a generational thing. And when you see that it really does make an impact,” Barbacci said, reflecting on the loyal patronage he’s seen in his decades with the Garden. He added that it’s not lost on him that the generational loyalty is what keeps the drive-in open.
Well, loyal patronage and a dedicated staff.
Barbacci admitted it’s been about three years since he’s worked at the theatre, but current managers Stephen Zelenak and Ian Bell are more than happy to keep the landmark venue going.
Zelenak started in 1992 and said, “It’s become a lifestyle for me. I love it. I love drive-ins. I love everything about it.” He explained that he started off “at the bottom,” working the concession counter. Thirty years later, he said, “I wanna put a bed down there so I can just stay there and never leave … once you get in, it’s a family.”
Bell has been with the Garden for “seven or eight years now,” but remains nonetheless dedicated to not only the theater aspect of the Garden, but to its other applications as well.
Bell explained that his mother is speech therapist at a school for children with learning disabilities. She told one of her students that her son runs the drive-in. The student relayed that he and his mother go to the Garden Flea Market every Sunday and when the weather intervenes and the flea market is canceled, “It ruins his entire week.”
While Zelenak oversees the day-to-day front of house operations, Bell is behind the scenes, with his technical savvy. And it’s a one-two punch that keeps the place operating in tip-top shape.
Of course, before there was the Barbaccis, or Zelenak, or Bell, there was Dave Hudzik.
Hudzik started as a projectionist back in 1979, his senior year of high school and stayed for about 40 years.
Reflecting on his years with the Garden (though he noted at one point, it flip-flopped between the Garden and the Gardens), he said, “No matter what, no matter how bad the floods were, we always bounced back, with every bit of new technology, we always rolled with the changes and been on top of things.”
Hudzik spoke about the changing times over the years, and how the projectionist position has also shifted. He noted that as film has faded and things have gone entirely digital, he’s lost interest, though he still helps out with the Garden when he’s needed.
But regardless of that, he, like many others, has remained enthralled by the magic of the Garden Drive-In.
“If I could go back to 1979 and do it all over again, I would,” he said with certainty. Hudzik also added that dedicated people are they key to keeping the Garden Drive-In around for another 70 years. By that logic, it seems as though what has become a point of pride, a tradition, and the setting for night’s out, first dates, family gatherings, and numerous other events for Luzerne County and beyond, is most definitely in good hands.
And with that 70-year celebration fast approaching, the Garden has a home run of a celebration in store for it.
Kicking off at 4 p.m. on Saturday July 2, the anniversary/Independence Day celebration is set to see a DJ, kids activities including caricatures, face painting and a bounce house, as well as fireworks and a movie lineup including “Minion: The Rise of Gru,” “Lightyear,” “Jurassic Park,” and perhaps “Top Gun.” There will also be food and drink deals while supplies last including $1 popcorn, burgers, and hot dogs.