Boulevard Drive-In Theatre given new life as socially distant activities gain popularity

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. — The Boulevard Drive-In Theater in Kansas City, Kan. has welcomed movie-goers since 1950. For more than 45 of those 70 years, the theater has also hosted a weekend Swap and Shop, and the iconic Kansas City theater has just experienced its best year yet.

Four years after Boulevard opened its gates with the movie “The Lady Takes a Sailor” starring Jane Syman and Dennis Morgan, a young Wes Neal moved from Wardell, Mo. to Kansas City to take his first job with a pharmaceutical company.

Eight hours a day didn’t keep Neal as busy as his work growing up on the farm, so he went looking for a second job. 

“I had so much energy I couldn’t sleep. I came to the show one night and asked him if they needed help, and they put me to work,” Neal said. “I got to work all day and half the night.”

The 93-year-old has worked at the Boulevard Drive-in every day since. In 1984, Neal became the owner. 

“I didn’t want to give up my job,” Neal said. “So I bought it.”

To carry the theater through the lean years after television became a mainstay in American homes, Neal started the Swap and Shop. Open every Saturday and Sunday from 5 a.m. until 2 p.m. year-round. It’s a picker’s paradise.

Rain, shine, snow or pandemic, each weekend it draws up to a couple hundred vendors and thousands of treasure seekers. Customers comb the aisles, sifting through everything from antiques to army knives, to clothes and tools. There are even live rabbits and chickens for sale some weekends.

It’s part flea market, part giant garage sale.

Over the 70 years since Boulevard Drive-In has opened, it’s had its ups and downs. The snack bar is from the 1950’s, although it has expanded.

Movie buffs are still drawn in by the original giant marque on Merriam Lane. Many of the speakers are 70 years old and they work perfectly. Neal checks all 700 hundred of them himself every single Monday. 

“We have a tradition to keep everything working right all the time. If something’s wrong, it bugs the heck out of us,” Neal said.

The single biggest change, and the most expensive by far, came in 2012. Neal invested $100,000 in a digital movie projector, catapulting the historic theater straight into the modern age. 

“That’s probably what has saved us because our drive-in has a good picture on the screen, and the sound quality is great,” Neal said. “It’s almost as good as an inside movie. There aren’t many drive-ins are as good as this one.”

Funny thing is, of the hundreds of movies that have played on the big screen here, Neal has only seen one in its entirety; “42”, the Jackie Robinson story kept him riveted. Other box office hits couldn’t keep him in his seat. 

“I just never was interested in the movies,” Neal said.

When 2020 hit, outdoor, socially distanced drive-in movies became a huge hit again, and for the first time other events moved to Boulevard, like high school graduations, corporate meetings and even religious gatherings.

Now, the old Boulevard Drive-In has some new life. Movie season hasn’t even begun yet, and Wes Neal says 2021 is almost booked solid.

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