At The Drive In

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In this episode of Memphis Type History: The Podcast, you’ll find out how the drive in movie theater started, hear Rebecca’s sister tell her childhood memories of the drive in, and answer the question that has been the source of many contentious debates in Memphis for years: which side of the highway was the Summer Avenue Drive in originally located?

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The First Drive In Theater

Richard Hollingshead starts the Drive-In, of course, for his mom. As a sales manager for his father’s company, Whiz Auto Products, Hollingshead understood the automobile and society’s love for cars. He also understood some people, like his mom, had a hard time finding a comfortable seat in the town’s lavish theater. Thus, he worked on an idea to create a movie watching experience in the comfort of your own car. Mounting a 1928 Kodak projector on the hood of his car, tying sheets to trees, and with his radio, he practiced his clever project in his own driveway. In May of 1933 he received a patent for his concept and opened the first Drive-In Theater on Tuesday, June 6 of the same year in Pennsauken, New Jersey. The investment was $30,000 and the product was genius.

The first drive in opened in 1933

opening night in 1933 saw long lines of cars waiting for this new experience

At some point between the late 1950s to early 60s around 4,000 Drive-In theaters existed across the country. One of the largest was in Copiague, New York which provided space for 2,500 parked cars, a kid’s playground and a full service restaurant. So what happened? Apparently, there were several factors in the decline of the drive-in. First, the widespread adoption of daylight savings made it difficult for the movies to start at a reasonable hour. Secondly, the oil crisis in the seventies made people more unlike to do anything in the car if they could avoid it. So the prospect of using extra gas sitting int he car, or even driving out to the drive-in was not conducive to the high-priced gas. Still, drive ins have managed to survive into the current era but there are fewer than 500 in existence today.

Growing Up at the Drive In

My sister actually has some vivid memories of going to the movie theater, especially the drive-in where we grew up in South Texas. She especially enjoyed the family outings when we visited our grandparents in Harlingen, right near the Mexican border. The whole experience of bringing food, packing into the car, seeing some new and exciting film, was an escape from what could sometimes feel like an otherwise dull and restricting working class lifestyle. Just going to the drive-in felt like an experience because it was out in the country with others families and cars. In short, it created a connection around a common experience and everyone was happy. It should be noted in the podcast my sister says she was born in 1979 which is true even though she tries to sound more like 79 years old to make the memory more genuine. Plus the two of us almost sound exactly alike so hopefully this helps distinguish us.

Valley Drive in Harlingen, TX (photo from cinematreasures.org)

abandoned drive in theater near Dallas, Texas

The Summer Avenue Drive In Great Debate

courtesy of Balton Sign Co. via cinematreasures.org

That brings us to the Summer Avenue Drive-In. If you talk to many Memphians, especially those that have lived here for a long time, you’ll run into questions about what side of the highway it was on originally: west or east? It turns out that’s a trick question because it was neither on the east or west side of the highway because at the time there was no highway!

The  current drive-in did move into its current location, across the highway to the west after the construction of the highway in 1966. The original drive-in was said to have the largest marquee sign in the South and the second largest car capacity at more than 600.

courtesy cinematreasures.org

I also learned the founder of Holiday Inn, Kemmons Wilson, was one of the original owners of the movie theater and he intended for there to be a skating rink directly in front of the screen. In addition, the original theater offered services many of us would love to have access to, especially us moms, like warming a bottle of milk for a baby! Although the skating rink may or may not have actually ever been used and several of the other big ideas for the theater were never realized, it was still very popular and entertained crowds for many years. It did close and was eventually demolished before the new Summer Drive-In opened in 1966.

Caitlin and I went to see a movie at the current Summer Drive In several years ago with our husbands and my young daughter. You’ll have to listen to the podcast to get the whole story, though. You’ll also hear about someone who may be living in an apartment above the concession stand.

That new theater has gone to great lengths in recent years to retain relevance by doing themed movie nights, like Time Warp Drive-In partnering with Black Lodge Video. It also continually has the big hits and newest movies being released in movie theaters around the country. They also do still have a fully operational concessions stand.

The Summer Drive-In now remains a popular spot for families, teenagers, and just about anyone who loves movies in Memphis. You can listen to the movie audio through a radio station that tunes in once you drive onto the lot and the sign is characterized by vintage sculptures and a classic Beetle car above the marquee.

Links Mentioned:

memphistypehistory.com/drive+in

memphismagazine.com/ask-vance/the-summer-drive-in/

cinematreasures.org/theaters/

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Rebecca Phillips

I am a female born in the United States though I generally fear the border patrol. Buy me an ice cream cone and maybe I'll paint you something.

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