REYNOLDS DRIVE-IN THEATRE (Part I)
by Ann Angel Eberhardt
Now showing: Memories of the drive-in theater, featuring Reynolds, a local hot spot during the 1950s and 60s for family, friends, and dates. Part I gives a brief history of Reynolds, the name’s origin, and the reason why it is in this blog’s spotlight.
REYNOLDS DRIVE-IN THEATRE
The year that the Reynolds Drive-In died was 2014. This drive-in theater on Route 18 in Transfer, Pennsylvania, which lived for over six decades and experienced a brief comeback, now is no more.
Open air cinemas had existed in crude forms, showing silent movies, as early as 1915-1916 in Mexico and 1921 in Texas. The drive-in theater as we know it opened in 1933 in Camden, New Jersey, by chemical company magnate Richard M. Hollingshead, Jr. after he did much experimentation to get it right. His ideas took hold and drive-ins grew in popularity in the 1930s.
By the 1950s and 1960s, the number of drive-ins peaked at around 4,000 and were mostly found in the United States, Canada and Australia. In the Sharpsville, PA, area alone there were the Hickory Drive-in (Sharon), Larkfield and Guthrie (Grove City), Penn (New Castle), Lakeside (Conneaut Lake), Moonlight (Brookville) and Reynolds (Transfer). Just across the border in Ohio were the Howland (Niles) and four more in the Youngstown area (Northside, Ski Hi, Southside, and Westside). A few are still in operation. Pennsylvania was known to have the greatest number of drive-in theaters in the U.S., mostly due to two advantages: cheap land and lots of it.
During the 1970s the number of drive-ins was declining for a variety of reasons. The societal and technical developments that adversely affected drive-ins are well-explained on the “History” page of www.driveinmovie.com: Daylight Savings Time, video rentals, urban sprawl, and finally the push to convert from 35mm film to expensive digital projectors in the early 2000s. Drive-in theaters made a brief comeback recently, as owners found creative ways to fund their existence, such as combining them with flea markets or serving higher-quality food at the concession stand, but it’s been a struggle.
Reynolds Drive-In Theatre: History & Memories
The story of Reynolds closely follows the course of drive-in theater history. The exact date that the Reynolds Drive-In originally opened is apparently unknown, with various websites estimating 1945, 1947, and as late as 1955.
However, the theater was already in existence for several years by 1953 as evidenced by an ad that appeared in the Record-Argus, a Greenville newspaper, featuring this message from Carl T. McKnight, Reynolds Owner and Manager:
A MESSAGE TO THE PUBLIC From REYNOLDS Drive-in Theatre
A few years ago we at REYNOLDS THEATRE decided we would like to keep our theatre alive during the winter months by having our marquee greet you with a friendly thought as you pass by. … We really appreciate hearing from you and would be happy to use any quotations or bit of philosophy you would care to send us, providing they are of a length we can use in our limited amount of space. … LET US HEAR FROM YOU – CARL T. MCKNIGHT Owner and Manager
Reynolds Drive-In Theatre was the place to be during its summers-only seasons in the 1950s and ’60s, whether it was a date night (remember when drive-ins were called “passion pits”?) or family night.
Spread across approximately 10 acres, Reynolds had the capacity for 550 cars, an average size for a drive-in then, and one large sheet metal screen tower that rested on a thick base of 75% stone masonry. There was a rise in the ground where you parked that tilted your car towards the screen. Because it was unpaved, the ground was sometimes dotted with puddles of water after a rain. At such a time, where the car was parked could be an important consideration! The spaciousness of cars in those days, along with their large windshields, made it easier to see the movie from both front and back seats. And those upholstered bench seats were much more comfortable than the hard seats of an indoor theater.
“Reynolds”: Whence the Name?
The name “Reynolds” has an intriguing history that dates back to the Civil War. According to Wikipedia:
In 1942 Reynolds came into being as the Shenango Personnel Replacement Depot and was originally named for the nearby village of Shenango. On railroad timetables it bore the Victory, PA, designation. Possibly because the original name was somewhat unwieldy, the War Department decreed in July 1943 that the military depot should bear the name of Camp Reynolds in honor of one of the Keystone State’s military heroes of the American Civil War. The new designation paid tribute to the memory of Major General John Fulton Reynolds, one of the 51 Union generals ‘who died in battle during the Civil War’.
What was once 26 farms on nearly 3,300-acres of rich land where potatoes grew, became in the span of only six months in 1942 the location of the largest military installation of its kind in the U.S. First known as Camp Shenango for the nearby village of Shenango, this self-sufficient “town” consisted of barracks, gymnasiums, chapels, libraries, theaters, a 100-bed hospital, fire stations, warehouses, mess halls, a rifle range, post exchanges, guest facilities, and much more.
All this was to temporarily accommodate officers and enlisted men before they were sent to war in Europe. Camp Reynolds also served as a holding place for German prisoners-of-war from April 1944 until January 1946. Camp Reynolds as a military personnel replacement depot was closed in 1945.
From 1949 to the present day, 1,200 acres of the area have been the location of three parks (industrial, warehouse and business), owned and operated by the non-profit Greenville-Reynolds Development Corporation.
Reynolds Drive-In: A Family Connection
I have special memories of this drive-in. My father, a printer and a friend of Carl T. McKnight, then owner of the drive-in, used to print programs for Reynolds in the 1950s. The programs, handed out to each car at the ticket booth, advertised upcoming movies and probably other information that I don’t recall. Usually, my brother or I (when we learned to drive) would deliver the programs, along with a few friends. We could stay for the movie without charge and sometimes we did.
My dad hardly ever attended movies, indoors or out, but I do remember the time he took the family to see Cecil B. DeMille’s biblical epic film depicting the life of Moses, “The Ten Commandments,” some time after its release in October 1956. That this one interested him was a mystery to us kids. It couldn’t have been the subject matter as he wasn’t a church-goer. In order to get the actors’ names and movie titles right, Dad subscribed to film industry magazines, such as BOXOFFICE Magazine. Maybe he had read about the movie’s reputation as the most expensive and the most financially successful film ever made at the time, its Academy Award nomination for Best Picture and 6 other categories, and its spectacular special effects. After all, Moses turns the river Nile to blood and parts the Red Sea right before your eyes!
[Continued with Part II]
– Ann Angel Eberhardt (Sharpsville High School 1958),
Phoenix, AZ. August 2017.
REYNOLDS DRIVE-IN THEATRE (Part II) -Speakers, Concession Stands
& Reynolds’ Final Days
Irwin, Dan. “Movie Memories Part 3: Technology takes movie theater projectionists from distinction to extinction.” New Castle News, July 3, 2013. http://www.ncnewsonline.com/news/local_news/movie-memories-part-technology-takes-movie-theater-projectionists-from-distinction/article_b7f0ac78-d930-54b2-ba80-a99761928056.html
“Camp Reynolds.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Camp_Reynolds
“Drive-In Theater.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drive-in_theater
“Message to the Public from Reynolds Drive-in Theatre.” The Record-Argus, Greenville, PA. November 23, 1953, p. 4. Newspapers.com.
“Reynolds Drive-In.” Cinema Treasures, LLC.