Here’s a question for those of you who attended drive-in movies in the 1950s through 1970s: Remember speakers that you would hook on your car windows? And if you were lucky you got one that worked? And the all-important concession stand that not only provided sweet or salty/greasy treats for movie-goers but was the movie owner’s profit-maker? Time marches on, to paraphrase the narrator of those old “March of Time” newsreels, but memories can evoke a wistful affection for the past.
Reynolds Drive-In: Speakers
Since the early days of the drive-in cinema, there was the soundtrack issue: How can viewers be enabled, enclosed in their cars, to hear the movie’s soundtrack?
In the 1930s, when talking pictures became commercially viable, drive-ins attempted various ways to handle the sound issue, such as speakers on the movie screen’s tower or in front of each row of cars. Finally, in 1941 RCA introduced in-car speakers complete with volume controls.
By the 1950s, outdoor theaters were providing movie-goers with individual speakers. In those days, rows of parking spaces were lined with posts that held aluminum-encased speaker boxes. You parked your car so the speaker was lined up with the front side of the car, removed the speaker from the post and hooked it onto the car’s lowered window. However, there were two concerns: whether your speaker worked well enough to hear the movie through the static and whether you would remember to replace the speaker, attached to its post by a wire, when you drove off at the end of the night! Broadcasting the soundtrack on AM or FM radio, introduced in the 1980s, was not only more economical but much less damage-prone!
Reynolds Drive-In: The Concession Stand
Concession stands were the real money-makers for drive-ins. Reynolds had the usual concession stand which also housed the projection booth. In the 1950s, attendees were charged 50 cents a carload, if I remember correctly, but much more was spent on popcorn, french fries, hamburgers, and sodas.
The food was heavily promoted by goofy but effective cartoon ads at “intermission,” the half-hour between the double-features. The theater always showed two movies, along with several short subjects and a cartoon. The first movie was more family-oriented than the second one with its gun-toting bad men and sexy ladies. That’s why you’d see kids in pajamas in the playground that was located at the base of the huge screen. They were ready for “bed” in the car’s back seat by the end of the first feature film, leaving mom and dad free to enjoy the “grown-up” movie.
(I recall benches placed along the fence separating the playground from the parking lot. They were used by the “walk-ins’ who lived nearby and stopped by for an evening of entertainment without the need of a car.)
To add to the enjoyment of the evening, drawings for prizes were held and live rock-and-roll or polka bands performed on the roof of the concession stand before the movie and during intermission. Richard Seaman, originally from Sharon, PA (SHS 1952), sent in the following comment to Part I of this series:
In 1950-52 I played in a Polka Band – The Starlighters — that was hired to play music before the movie started. We would set up on the roof of the projection-refreshment stand and play Polkas and Waltzes. John Murcko – Accordion, Richard Seaman – Tenor Sax, John Bross – Drums, Jim Muder – Guitar. We may have had other musicians sit in with us but I can’t recall exactly who they were.
Reynolds Drive-In: The Last Picture Show
The date of Reynolds first closing is not known. Then in 1988, at the beginning of renewed interest in drive-ins that lasted into the early 2000s, Reynolds re-opened with updated features such as sound via radio and first-run films. Again, information on how long Reynolds’ second phase lasted could not be found.
A Sharon Herald article titled “The Final Feature,” dated August 3, 2014, mentioned a Herald Facebook comment in which David Pennington wrote that his family had once owned and operated Reynolds. David Pennington explained that his father and uncles ran the theater, with his grandfather running the projection booth and his grandmother running the ticket booth.
Beginning in 1998 the Reynolds Drive-In Theatre was run by the Loomis Family with Justin Loomis as the owner in the theater’s last years.
Sometime between 1998 and 2011, the theater again closed down, this time due to the need to convert to a digital projector required to show the latest movies. Loomis explained the difficulties in trying to reopen the theater on Facebook in July 2013:
Here is the latest scoop on being able to get back open, the total for the new system, screen, and renovations to the housing booth are in the six figures. the new system will not show on our current screen and it requires a building that is climate controlled year round. …The odds of being able to come back for the drive-in are very highly stacked against us.
In the 2014 Herald article, which tells of the theater’s brief reopening for a final double-feature weekend, Loomis explained the reason for closing:
When [the movie industry] switched over to digital, it really screwed us over on movie selections…It’s not exactly a cash cow, more of a fun type of business….It’s a great place, people like coming. It’s a feasibility thing: It’s not exactly working for us…..It’d be great for a family business where it’s their main focus.
But the drive-in was not Loomis’s main focus: Instead, his family had another business, Loomis Auctioneer Services. It was the latter company that auctioned off the theater via the Internet in 2014. After some 70 years, the Reynolds Drive-In went dark for good after a “Farewell Weekend,” on August 8 & 9, 2014, when two first-run movies, “X-Men: Days of Future Past” and “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” were shown. By this time, adult tickets cost $5.00 and a carload (no limit) was charged $20.00.
Digital conversion and other innovations, such as LCD projectors, micro-radio transmitters, huge inflatable screens or the use of Jumbotrons, have kept some of today’s approximately 300 drive-in theaters appealing to movie-goers. However, the main attraction of drive-ins began long ago, peaked in the 1950s and 1960s, and still resonates with today’s open-air movie-goers: that magical feeling of watching a movie in the fresh air of the great outdoors, under the moon and stars.
– Ann Angel Eberhardt (Sharpsville High School 1958), Phoenix, AZ. September 2017.
“Drive-In Theater.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drive-in_theater
Finnerty, Meagen. “The Final Feature.” SharonHerald.com, Sharon, PA. August 3, 2014. http://www.sharonherald.com/news/local_news/the-final-feature/article_6ac4d278-f529-521d-bc04-28dd6591a0f2.html
“Reynolds Drive In.” Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/reynoldsdrivein/
REYNOLDS DRIVE-IN THEATRE AS OF 2012
YouTube video by Stffthats Gone