Cohen, the Transit Drive-In’s driving force

Local News

(WIVB)–Rick Cohen knew early on that he was meant for this life.  “You want to hear a story?” the owner of the Transit Drive-In said this week. “I’ll tell you a story.”

The year was 1983. Cohen has a great memory for detail, especially when it involves movies. Transit was showing “Bad Boys,” an early Sean Penn flick. It had to be late March or early April, soon after the film’s release. You could look it up.

“This would have been my first year working at the drive-in,” Cohen recalled. “I was 15 years old. We had only one screen then. My brother had moved to Kingston and my dad wasn’t there that night, because he had to get up early for work. Opening night, and he wasn’t there.

“I was working with the other projectionist. So the movie comes on the screen. It’s the second or third reel and there’s a backwards reel.”

The film was playing backwards. Angry patrons were leaning on their car horns. Some were throwing beer bottles at the projection room. The main projectionist, who was twice as old and twice as experienced, was in a panic. He told Rick to call his father, Macy Cohen, who had been managing the drive-in for 20 years.

“I said, ‘You call my dad! I’m going to fix it’,” Cohen said. “I hadn’t been doing projection for long, but if you’re calm, you can fix anything. I took the reel off the projector, reversed it, spliced it back together, put it back on the projector and got the show back on the screen within a half an hour.

“So I had an aptitude for problem-solving and decision-making. That’s what management is about.”

Cohen’s big decision came a few years later when it was time to decide on a college. His mother had dreams of him becoming a doctor or lawyer. Rick had other plans. He deciding not to go to college at all. 

“I thought if I went away to school for four years, the drive-in wouldn’t be here. My decision making was, ‘Do I go away to school and leave the drive-in to someone else to run, or do I take it by the reins and take charge of it myself, and see what I can do?’”

So at 19, he took over the drive-in, which had been in the family since his grandfather, Irving Cohen, bought it at the peak of the drive-in craze in 1957. His mother was crushed. His grandmother, Mary Cohen, thought he was nuts to commit to a declining industry. Keep in mind, Blockbuster Video had been founded in 1985.

No matter, Rick was born to it. Critics felt the industry was dying. But he threw himself into the task. He added FM stereo sound and a better film system. He repainted the speaker poles, added a bunch of special events like car shows, hayrides, and rock concerts. 

The drive-in began to thrive again, putting more than 1,000 cars through the gates per night during the season. As the movie industry began to release more of the better films, Cohen added a second screen in 1994 and a third in 1996, then a fourth in 2001. Also, they added a fifth screen in 2016. 

That made Transit the largest drive-in theater in the state. So yeah, Cohen made some sound decisions. Who would have thought that in 2020, in his fifth decade running the drive-in, he would have perhaps his greatest creative challenge yet? A pandemic.

Cohen figured in early March that the coronavirus would be a major problem. He had plans to open the drive-in on March 20, at 50 percent capacity with other safety precautions. But Paramount pulled the movie, Mulan. Two days later, Gov. Cuomo shut down non-essential businesses in the state. 

“I thought at the time, ‘We’re probably looking at a minimum of a two-month shutdown,” he said. “‘I’ll be happy if I can bring the theater back for Memorial Day’. That’s pretty much how it played out.”

Last week, Cuomo gave the go-ahead for drive-ins. Last weekend, the theater was back in business on Transit Road in Lockport. Capacity was limited to around parking spaces for the two films, “Trolls” and “Invisible Man”,  to ensure social distancing. 

Cohen revamped his entire operation. Patrons had to buy tickets on the website and have them scanned at the entrance. Food was ordered by an app, and people had to wait in a distanced queue to get food. Only one person at a time was allowed in rest rooms, which were disinfected after each use. 

It was a demanding operation, but a success. There was one glitch in what Cohen had called as “the perfect social distancing venue.” He decided to allow people to sit on lawn chairs outside their vehicles, assuming they would take the proper precautions. Many did not. 

“I made the hopeful choice that we could trust people to sit outside on lawn chairs and wear their facemasks,” he said. “Most people thought it was an option and not mandatory. And it made people uncomfortable.”

So he’ll do a little “tightening” to make people feel secure. Cohen sees the drive-in as a community resource. Before each film, he played a 30-second video to honor the health care workers. Patrons were urged to honk their horns “loud and proud.”

“When (the pandemic) was first developing, it occurred to me, and to a lot of people, that this was perfect for the drive-in,” he said. “I tried not to look at it that way. I didn’t want to come across as opportunistic. I wanted to do the right thing. I gave it a lot of hard thought.

“But it’s our mission to be of service to the community in a way that’s safe and memorable. To be here for the community that’s been there for us the last 68 years. 

“Every spring, before we reopen, I’ll wonder, will they come back? Is the drive-in still going to be relevant? Last spring, when the last Avengers movie came out — Endgame – it was late April and pouring rain and they were lined up down the road to get in.

“So yeah, I’d say we’re still relevant.”

Still relevant in the business, nearly a century after Irving Cohen opened his first theater. Irving died when Rick was only 7. His grandson has always wanted to run things in a way that would make him proud. 

Cohen dedicates the drive-in’s website to Irving and Mary Cohen, who were married in Rochester in 1926 and bought their first movie theater in Wayland, a small town in Steuben County, a year later. 

In 1937, they build their first new theater, the Steuben, which was regarded as one of the most beautiful venues in the Northeast. The Cohens moved to Rochester and then to Buffalo, where they bought the historic Allendale Theater — now the Theatre of Youth on Allen Street.

The Cohen family also owned the old Jubilee Theater on Niagara Street. It’s now a marine supply store. Rick said the bones of the theater are still there, including the proscenium arch and the projection room.

After the war, drive-ins came into vogue. Irving built the Van Buren Theater in Dunkirk and a year, later the Sheridan Drive-In in Tonawanda, close by the 190-290 interchange. Older Buffalo folks surely recall the Sheridan, which closed around 1981.

Rick’s grandfather bought the Transit Drive-in from a group of local businessmen in 1957, at the height of the boom. In 1958, there were more than 4,000 drive-ins in the United States (there are fewer than 400 today). Irving’s brother had drive-ins in Angola and Albion at the time. 

Thus began Western New York’s drive-in dynasty. Four generations of the Cohen family have worked at the Transit. Rick’s uncle, Gary, managed it the first six years. His father, Macy, took over after getting out of law school. Macy ran the theater at night while working as a claims adjustor for All-State by day.

Rick’s older brother, David, was a manager from 1979-83. Both his sisters worked there. Sister Jacqueline managed the snack bar from 1984-86. Rick started working in ’83, the year “Bad Boys” showed up with one of the 20-minute reels on backwards. 

“At first, I would grill hamburgers and hot dogs,” he said. “I did cashiering, maintenance, tarred the roof. Repaired speakers and speaker poles. In ’84, my brother trained me how to run the old 35-millimeter projectors. And by the time I graduated high school (Williamsville East) in 1986 I’d been there for three years. 

“I was as now one of the most experienced people on the staff, and I kind of took it over. By 1987, I was definitely running the drive-in. I had a knack, I guess you could say.”

Cohen, 52, did OK for himself. He’s in his 34th year running the Transit Drive-In, and it’s still going strong. He stayed tough during the rise of home video and other threats to the business. 

When Blockbuster Video went down, he addressed its demise thusly: “If you wait by the river long enough, the bodies of your enemies will float by.” 

The drive-in industry thinned out, but it never lost its essential appeal. Cohen was determined to make it go. He also got some breaks. Around 1990, the movie studios became more amenable to giving first-run products to drive-ins. 

“It’s one reason we added a second and third screen,” he said, “to give the studios more incentive to service our location. With multiple screens, we were able to accommodate more of their movies over the course of our season.”

Cohen said the driven-in wouldn’t have survived without multiple screens. But by the early 1990s, business had turned around. Nights with more than 1,000 admissions became commonplace. In a given year, about 120,000 adults and children come through.

Could it be that the more Americans consume their entertainment on small and smaller devices, in the isolation of their own homes, the prospect of a drive-in movie on a big screen has a renewed fascination?

The drive-in industry was making a comeback before the coronavirus crisis. Cohen devoted his life to drive-ins, and suddenly they’re coming back into fashion. Naturally, the pandemic is elevating the resurgence. But there’s a difference between opportunism and opportunity. 

The drive-in has become a salvation. With regular movie houses off-limits, people can watch movies there. Cohen hosted a wedding last week. Starting on May 26, the Transit will host virtual high school graduations every night for 40 days. 

The schools can honor their graduates on the screen. Then everyone will watch a movie together.

“They could do Wayne’s World, or Ferris Bueller’s Day,” Cohen said. “I’d like to do Fast Times at Ridgemont High, but I think it’s a little too rough.”

There’s talk of having some high school musicals on the big screen. Cohen hopes to have rock concerts, which he’s done in the past. He do it remotely, or have local bands perform on a stage during the daytime. He’d split the proceeds between bands and charities.

“I’m not looking to be profitable,” he said. “I want to serve the community and support the musicians, especially local bands, and have them be  fund-raisers for local charities helping support people affected by the pandemic.”

He also would like to host some Bills games at the drive-in. Cohen showed a few games in the 2014 season, including the home game that was moved to Detroit because of the big snowstorm. 

Technically, a drive-in doesn’t meet NFL regulations for showing games in public. But these are unusual times. Cohen, a huge Bills fan whose father had season tickets from Day One  at the Rockpile, wants to provide a game-day atmosphere if teams aren’t allowed to have full stadiums in the fall.

“We are going to approach the league,” said Cohen, who couldn’t charge admission for NFL games. “Their requirement is you can’t show it without permission. What if we get permission under the circumstances, that they won’t be able to fill their stadiums this year? 

“What would be the harm, letting them beam live games on screens? I’m not looking to do this to make money. I’m doing it as a Bills fan.”

At this crazy time, anything is possible. Imagine, over the next six months a Western New Yorker could attend a wedding, a concert, a high school graduation and a Bills game at the Transit Drive-In. Oh, a movie, too.

“That’s what we’re here for,” Cohen said. “You could say I’ve been preparing for this for 37 years. It’s what I was born I do, to provide memories for people. If I can help make things easier during times like this, it’s all I’m trying to do.”

Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning digital reporter who joined the News 4 team in 2020. See more of his work here.

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