[The following series originally appeared at the now-defunct Evil Sam's Drive-In Theatre Guide. It was intended as an aid to visitors who might be inspired to find out about their own community's drive-in history, and has been reprinted here to the same end. Thanks to the author, Wesley Horton, for sending it along.]
Basic Drive-in Archeology 101
Know your Drive-in Theatre!
Tracking down the history and "Lost information" about drive-in theatres is alot like detective work, in fact, that is exactly what it is. There is a myriad of information to be found, IF you know where to look. I will focus this column on the how to of finding oddball information about drive-in theatres which have long been committed to the graveyard. The search can be at times very rewarding, especially when you find a photograph of a drive-in theatre long since demolished. It can also be very frustrating, for example when you cannot find information or pictures which you know MUST exist somewhere! (My current holy grail is photographs of the Twilight Gardens Drive-in Theatre in Oklahoma City, OK.)
If you are going to research the drive-in theatre, a good starting point is the Public library. There is a wealth of information located in the public library just waiting to be plucked. The nice thing about the local public library is that it is free. Another great benefit is the fact that local libraries specialize in local material. If you are looking for history about a local drive-in, there is no better place to start.
Lets take a few moments to look over the “vital statistics” of a drive-in theatre, and how they may be garnered. Drive-in theatres are just like people, they have a name, a birth date and in many cases a death date. Microfilm copies of newspapers usually hold much of this information. A little searching will usually turn up at least two of these items without much effort.
To find the name of a drive-in theatre and where it was located, old newspapers are perhaps the best source of information to start with. As you are currently reading this via the Internet, it also holds at least one morsel of information to guide you. If you have no idea when a local drive-in started, check out the listing of drive-in theatres of the 1955 seasons on Tim Reeds “How to build a drive-in theatre” website. It lists all drive-in theatres that were known to exist during the 1955 season, as was published in an annual magazine/publication called Theatre Catalog. Theatre Catalog was always methodical in its research and was a very good reference. Theatre Catalog also listed the car capacity of the drive-in.
Knowing if a theatre was open and its name in 1955 is a good starting point. If you do not have this information, look in the July edition of the local newspaper. Remember that in 1955, Newspapers were the major source for people about what was going on. Televisions were in only about 30 to 50 percent of all homes. Take a few notes on what you find in the 1955 July edition. What drive-in theatres were open? What was the theatre’s address?
You at least have a starting point now. If a particular drive-in is listed look back to July of 1954 and take the same notes. Was the drive-in you seek open and as such listed in the paper? Or was it not listed again and logically not open? Continue this search until you find the year that the drive in was opened. If you find a drive in was listed in July of 1955 but not July of 1954 then it opened sometime between those dates. Narrow the search by checking the months before July until you find the first ad. Usually just checking the first date of the month is sufficient. Now that you have an idea of what month the drive-in opened, narrow your search by checking each Friday until you find a early ad and trace back a day or so until you find the opening ad. Usually drive-in theatres had a big gala celebration to herald the opening of the NEWEST DRIVE-IN in town. (Look for example at the advertisement of the Twilight Gardens Drive-in in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. A full page ad was used and could not be missed. The object of the new drive-in was to attract people to the grand opening. It should not be too hard to miss.
Now that you have found the opening ad, make a copy of it. Have it scanned and submit it for everyone to appreciate. (Don’t forget to include the date and the name of the newspaper you found it in!) Currently Sam has enough space to post such things. Generally speaking, he will, but if he does not, don’t despair, at least you know the opening movie(s), the address or location of the drive-in and perhaps other misc. information the owner may have wanted the public to know.
Finding the end of the road for the drive-in is not so clear cut. Usually you can find advertisements for the drive-in theatre. There are of course exceptions, such as the drive-in that went to a pornography billing in the 70’s. Many local communities prohibit advertisement of X-rated fare. Many drive-in theatres however, ran the remainder of a season and then simply did not re-open the next year. The tip off will be simply that there is no notice at all. If there is no advertisement listed in July, there probably were not any, because the theatre was closed.
In the event the theatre went to an unpopular fare in films such as X-rated, remember first that the rating system did not come into play until 1968. Even though a drive-in may not have ran popular family oriented movies, they were still listed in the phone books. Most libraries have old phone books or even better, old city directories. Just ask the librarian for help, and I will go into more detail about the value and differences of the city directories later.
If you have any questions about old drive-ins or how to find information, E-mail Wesley Horton at firstname.lastname@example.org. I will try to answer it in the next column or by e-mail. Good luck and Good hunting!
On to part 2