I recently explored the Starlite in Amelia, on the outskirts of Cincinnati, where I grew up. I Feel Pretty and Deadpool 2 were sharing the signboard (always a double feature at the Starlite, $8.75 for adults). Ours was a daylight tour, with a friend who knows his way around the countryside. Next time I’m in southern Ohio, I hope to take in a movie by star light, at the Starlite, which is open six nights a week in the warm season. Just a note on Amelia itself (I love obscure details that trace things back to their names): the town, population 4, 801, was named for Amelia Bowdoin, a popular 19th century tollgate operator, on the Ohio Turnpike, whose house still stands close to where it was when it was a tollhouse. (Nobody charges for driving State Route 125 anymore.)
The last movie I attended in the open air was in 1969, Candy, onscreen at Cincinnati’s Oakley Drive-In. There were some other racier features if you stayed long enough. A month later I was gone, heading North and East to NYC, where I settled in Staten Island and, seven years later, became one of the managers of a local 2,672-seat movie palace, the St. George Theatre, just a block and a half from the Staten Island Ferry, as our state-of-the-art 1976 telephone answering machine used to tell callers.
By the time I arrived in S.I., the one local drive-in the prosaically entitled Staten Island Drive-In, had been gone four years, its land subsumed for building the K-Mart Mall. It had opened in 1948, causing a ban on night flights from several local airfields. There were, of course, no drive-ins in Manhattan; but two other outdoor theaters, the Whitestone Drive-In in the Bronx (1949) and the International Airport Drive-In, in Queens, also fell victim to their own property values. The Whitestone morphed into a multiplex, but the Airport alas, became nothing more than a parking lot. Such was the fate of outdoor exhibition sites in the sixties and seventies, the result of suburban sprawl -- that also claimed the Oakley back home. It lasted until 2005. On visits to Cincy, I’d roam around the abandoned site of my movie-watching youth, searching for memories I might have accidentally discarded. It was, for a while, a field of posts in tall grass, facing a torn screen. But even that reminiscence is no longer possible, the site repurpsed for a dog spa and an assisted living facility. You have to go to the countryside surrounding Cincinnati to watch a movie from the front or backseat of your car, these days.
What a peculiarly American institution drive-ins are! According to Drive-Ins.com, and other sources, Richard Hollingshead is the granddaddy of the business. His compelling motive for building Park-In Theatres, in Camden, NJ was, apparently, to help his tall mother watch movies in the private comfort of the family car. He tested the concept in his driveway, nailing a screen to trees, putting a radio behind the screen, and placing a 1928 Kodak projector on the hood of his car. When he had everything figured out, he applied for a patent, then opened Park-In, charging 25 cents per car and 25 cents per person, with no group paying more than one dollar.
Variations on this pricing model — per carload — were popular at many drive-ins through the sixties and seventies, resulting in some interesting narratives about packing vehicles. My husband Dean recalls going to the Montgomery Drive-In, ($1.20 a carload) another suburban Cincinnati theater, in the Staley Funeral Parlor’s family-owned hearse — the secondary one they only used when there were two funerals. The Staley brothers could pack around fifteen into the old wagon, especially fun when Horrors of the Black Museum or something starring Vincent Price flashed on screen.
While Dean was hangin’ in the back of the hearse, I had my own adventures at the Oakley, which involved my best friend’s divorcee mother, dating an ex-rodeo cowboy, Harvey, whom she kept at bay in the front seat, right in front of us kids. And this comment just in from a reader of Jalopy Journal: Once we took a school bus to carload night. They weren't going to let us in and called the cops when we refused to get out of the lane. The cops said that they had to let us in. The next week there was a sign that said no bus loads. I’m surprised the Montgomery didn’t ban hearses!
Tom Purcell, a nationally-syndicated Pittsburgh Tribune-Review humor columnist, recalls the time his family left the drive-in without remembering to do a head-count, inadvertently leaving his four-year-old sister Mary behind. Check it out. No helicopter parents in those days!
The database at Drive-Ins.com is well worth perusing. A fly-by of the list of drive-ins past and present yields some great names. My favorite, “Field of Dreams,” are two linked theaters, both in my home state, Tiffin and Liberty Center, OH. Should you find yourself in Tiffin, go to a movie and give a donation to restore their neon sign.
What does it take to start up a drive-in? Well, land, and a screen — not even projection these days — but some kind of building for popping popcorn and grilling dogs.Or, you can go more primitive than that...Ever heard of the guerrilla drive-in movement? In Santa Cruz, CA where it all started, guerrilla theaters are pop up, and the screen surface might just be a blank billboard or the pylon on a highway. Do it yourself.
My husband, Dean, was, as you may know, one of my partners in movie palace management, and no wonder, given that, at the age of ten, he and his friends up and down the block in Deer Park Ohio, started a kind-of drive-in (you could call it guerrilla) that took viewers by the bike-load. Dean and the crew made their own movies (Big T. Productions), popped their own corn, and sold Kool-Aid in soda bottles, aided by a bottle-capping apparatus somebody’s mom had. It was a living!
Afterthought 1 Although Hollingshead is the official patent-holding inventor of the drive-in, an early (hybrid) version, opened in Las Cruces, New Mexico, in 1915, accommodating seven hundred people in an auditorium, and an additional 40-plus cars. It had a performance stage as well. Opened with Bags of Gold (Siegmund Lubin) and closed a year later.
Afterthought 2 I owe my tour of Starlite Drive-In and other theaters in Claremont County (upcoming in a post of the future) to my old friend, Thom Moon, originally from Dayton, Ohio, now living in Cincinnati. You may recall his story in a previous post about the Victory (Victoria ) Theatre in Dayton. Among other things, it’s a father/son story...