Midway Drive-In Owners Continue Father’s Legacy

Sign says Midway Drive-In Theatre, Toy Story 4, Aladdin, Dark Phoenix
Midway sign announces weekend triple feature. Photo by: Kassadee Paulo

MINETTO – Midway Drive-In Theater has been a staple for Oswego County residents every summer since 1948 when it opened, and the current owners work to maintain its sense of timelessness. 

There used to be about 5,000 drive-in movie theaters in the country, and now Midway is one of about 300 left.

Siblings John and Heidi Nagelschmidt own and operate the drive-in each summer, with the help and guidance of their mother, Judy. 

“We try our best to keep it as a time-capsule to escape the stresses of life,” John said.

Their father, Big John, and Judy started working at the drive-in in 1961 to pay for college and were managing it by 1966.

They bought it in 1987 and ran it during the summers – John was a teacher and Judy was a substitute teacher.

“We’ve gone through some changes over the years but we have tried to retain to retain its timelessness; it’s not a whole lot different than when folks went in the 50s and 60s,” John said.

The Nagelschmidt family has had its share of change and hardship, and has tried to make the best of it regardless. In 2013 the theatre had to switch from film projection to digital, a $100,000 investment that came with technical difficulties.

One year later, a microburst storm in July demolished the screen.

Community helps drive-in rebuild

The cost to repair the screen tower was $225,000 and the insurance would not cover it. The community rallied to save the drive-in by paying for half the cost. 

John said his father was a private man and was usually the person to help others, not the other way around. He did not like accepting help from others often, but eventually came around to accept it. 

“We really couldn’t have kept it in the family if they hadn’t,” John said. “It was just a beautiful thing – the community really rallied.”

In 2017 the family was struck by tragedy again with the unexpected death of Big John when he was preparing to open for the season. Judy came out of retirement to help John and Heidi run the business end of the drive-in. 

Following work in the broadcasting field, John had begun working side by side with his father in 2013, learning the ins and outs of Midway before taking over after his death.

“It’s been really difficult because everything there is part of him,” John said. “The greatest comfort for us in carrying on after his passing, was the consistency of our regulars – the familiar faces that kept coming back because the theater felt like a totally different place without him there.”

Big John had worked hard to keep the drive-in’s nostalgic feeling by collecting old intermission trailers and digitizing them.

He also fought to keep the iconic lot speakers up, but eventually stopped putting them up and entirely switched to radio in the mid-90s. 

To sustain Big John’s legacy and vision for the drive-in, John has continued its trademark features: triple features on the weekends, open-captioning for the hearing impaired on Sundays, nightly free pizza drawing and the Dusk to Dawn show during Labor Day weekend. 

“We’re the only drive-in I know of that shows triple features every Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, and that was something he started,” John said. “We were the first drive-ins in the world to have an open-captioning show, and that was when he had a film projection.”

Empty car lot closed off by yellow tape
The back lot is taped off due to mud.

This season has been a rainy one and has resulted in the back part of the lot to be closed off due to the mud, taking up about 35% of the 600 car capacity.

This weekend, Midway showed Toy Story 4, Aladdin and Dark Phoenix and sold out by 9 p.m. both Friday and Saturday.

John said he hopes to fix the drainage in the back lot this fall. He also hopes to work on upgrades to the concession stand to speed up the long lines that often build up to buy snacks and drinks. 

The drive-in is open weekdays until Labor Day and Friday, Saturday and Sunday until Halloween.

On Saturday and Sunday of Labor Day weekend they will hold their annual Dusk to Dawn show, with five movies for regular admission price – $9 for an adult and $3 for children aged 7-11.

“I think it’s a really magical, special place in our community and we really just see ourselves as the caretakers of it,” John said. “It belongs to the community and we just try our best so it can be there for many years to come.”