Basic Drive-in Archeology 101
Continuing the Search
1 July 1997
Greetings again fellow drive-in theatre enthusiast. Let us continue the search for information regarding those lost and forgotten drive-in theatres that used to dot the American countryside. Always bear in mind that there were over 3,500 drive-in theatres in the United States. According to the 1955-56 Theatre Catalog, there were actually 4,340 drive-in theatres operating at the publication date of the 55-56 edition. Statistics given by Theatre Catalog, indicate that during the publication of the 1953-54 Edition, there were 3,841 drive-in theatres! There are many lost drive-in theatres out there.
Evil Sam once quoted a remark of mine offhand. He noted that an unnamed drive-in theatre on his list was like a grave with no name. That is exactly what it is. A listed but “Name unknown” drive-in is in effect, a forgotten grave. Someone knew the drive-in, someone built it, someone nurtured it, cared for it and watched it grow and die. Granted, A drive-in theatre is no human being, but at one time, it entertained many people and fostered now lost or forgotten memories. The one thing that we can leave to future generations, is a history of those drive-in theatres. Hopefully, some day, someone will try to explain what a drive-in theatre was. They can come to the internet, this very site in fact and show someone what the drive in was. (I HOPE that there will always be drive-in theatres but the reality is a different creature) Enough on editorializing and on to finding drive-in theatres!
By this time, you should have gone to the public library, dug through the old newspapers and come up with a list of drive-in theatres that are (were) in striking distance of where you are now. At the very least, you have a name, address and phone number. Be sure when you are looking through old newspapers to check for stories and by-lines about the opening of a new drive-in theatre. There were frequently stories and pictures when the first drive-in theatre in a town open, after all, it was at that time something new and different. I can virtually guarantee that in a small town, you will almost ALWAYS find some sort of article when a new drive-in theatre opened. After you have made a complete list of the drive-in theatres in your target town forward it to Evil Sam’s “Museum.”
Most public libraries have a reference section which should have old city directories. These are NOT the same as the old phone directories. City directories were typically printed by two competing companies, City Directory and Criss-Cross. City directories (the Criss-Cross directory is used interchangeably here.) have the same sort of information but in a much more helpful format. For instance, they usually had three sections. The first section was listed alphabetically by name. Just like the phone book but with one important difference, people with “unlisted” phone numbers are included. Phone numbers are not given in those cases but addresses are!. The second section of the City Directory lists information by street. In other words, each possible address is listed along with who lives or does business at that address. The third section lists information in order by phone number. You may see listings like this:
555-1234 I.N. Formation 232 Central Ln.
555-1235 Ima Jerk 2331 SW 21st Your City again
As you can see, these are of great value when trying to track someone down. City Directory and its competitor, Criss-Cross were printed for those nice folks who track you down when you owe someone money. They were the database before computers became popular. They are frequently available for each year and are sometimes available back to the 1890’s. They are still of great value tracking someone down when you know where they were.
One other little tidbit frequently found with the directories, business frequently had the owner or manager listed with the alphabetic listings. Personal listings frequently listed where the person worked and in what capacity. (up until the mid 60’s or so) Now that you have access to this information, look up the old drive-in theatre. An important question can now be answered, “Who owned the drive-in?” If you can find the original owner, you can probably locate that person or someone in the family who has PICTURES!!
It never ceases to amaze me, how many of the people who built and owned the drive-in theatres are still around! If you approach them correctly, they LOVE to tell stories about the drive-in theatres. These are people who want very much to share their life experience with anyone who will listen. The only problem is that most people are not interested. I do not believe that I have spoken with anyone who was an owner who has spoken with more than 2 or 3 people about the drive-in. Listen to them, they have the sort of stories that make this stuff interesting. Take a tape recorder with you. They have a lot to say, and are usually very passionate about it. (At least one gentleman I spoke with was moved to tears in talking about the happy days at his drive-in.)
The thing that most gets your attention, pictures of these old drive-in theatres may be found with these people or their families. If you ask for photographs, I would admonish you one thing above ALL ELSE! IF YOU BORROW THE PICTURES TO HAVE THEM COPIED, MAKE SURE YOU RETURN THEM IN THE SAME CONDITION THEY WERE GIVEN TO YOU!! To you and I, they are just pictures of a long gone drive-in theatre. To these people, they are family momentous. They are as much a part of their family and history as their children. If someone borrowed your pictures, you would want them back. If you even think remotely that you may not be able to return them when you promise to, do not borrow them. If you do, you could do more damage to our cause than you could imagine.
Most photographic stores have the capability to copy old photographs. This is usually the best way to have copies made. It also costs the most, but if you want to preserve the history of a drive-in, that is the best way. If your funds are limited or you are presented with many photos, there are two ways you can approach the situation. The least expensive way to deal with the problem is to take them to a commercial copy place such as KINKO’S. Any copy shop that has a color copier will be able to give you good copies. Even on black and white, a color copier will give you much better copies. They are able to capture minute detail and more accurately reproduce gray scales. The cost of a color copy is anywhere from .50 cents to $1.00. very reasonable. The other option for those on a limited budget, although a bit more expensive is to have a set of negatives made from the prints and have a set of prints made later. To give you an idea of how much money we can be talking about here, consider the following. When I found the black and white prints of the “Admiral Twin/ Modernaire” drive-in located in Tulsa Oklahoma, there were a total of 31 (Thirty one) 8x10’s. Unfortunately, the original negatives have long since been lost. To have a set of 35mm Black and white negatives made cost me $46.00. The normal cost would have been $4.00 each, but the shop I use gave me a volume discount and charged $1.50 each. At any rate, there is now a set of negatives for pictures taken some 50 years ago, when that drive-in was new. I could have had a set of color copies made for a lot less, but will they exist in 10 years?
In reality, it will be rare that you will incur costs such as this. You must ask, how interested are you and what will your budget stand? (I still have not heard the end of the Admiral twin incident from my wife!!) The up side of this hobby is that it can be very satisfying to find pictures of a long lost drive-in. There are not too many people crowding the field either!
By now, you should be able to start to track down the owners of those drive-in theatres, especially if it was a mom and pop operation. Most all of the drive-in theatres opened from 1945 to 1954 were small operations such as this. They were started by men home from the war. If the drive-in theatre(s) in your area were operated by a chain as they sometimes were in larger cities, do not despair, there are still a few tricks we can use to find information. We will talk about that later.
I have two immediate tidbits of information
to pass along:
1. There is a drive-in theatre discussion list. For information go to http://groups.yahoo.com/group/drive-ins.
2. Don Sanders now has an excellent web site about his book, “The American Drive-in.” It is a fascinating web site with information and pictures of drive-in theatres from every state. See it at http://www.americandrivein.com.
Wesley Horton Ph.D (Preserving Historic Drive-in’s)
American Institute of Drive-in Archeology
On to part 3