By: Austin Prickett, Co-Editor
Drive-in movie theatres have the power to take you back to a different time. Just take a trip to the Winchester Drive-in located in busy south Oklahoma City. As you pull off Route 66, you wonder if you took a wrong turn as fast food restaurants and businesses line the streets. One look at the giant cowboy shaped neon sign directs you into a seemingly different world that existed 30 years ago. Everywhere you look people are sitting in lawn chairs, playing catch and visiting the snack bar in preparation for the film. It is a surreal scene that you can’t find very often today.
According to www.drive-ins.com, the drive-in movie theatre was once an integral part of American culture. The first drive-in opened in 1933 in New Jersey. The industry rapidly expanded throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s. By 1960, nearly 5,000 drive-ins were in operation in the United States. A combination of the invention of VCR’s, color TV’s and nationwide adoption of Daylight Savings Time kicked off the decline of drive-ins. The number of drive-ins began to drop just as rapidly as they had grown in the earlier years. The sharp decline continued through the ‘70s and ‘80s as owners began showing films intended for an older audience to try and bring the crowds back.
The Stadium Drive-In was open in Alva, Okla. from 1971 to 1985. Johnny Jones, former owner, said the drive-in closed due to the late start times and lack of interested people.
According to Jones, the summer heat and mosquitos aren’t the only issues that could turn off many customers. Jones said the sound quality is only as good as your vehicle speakers and he cited problems getting a high quality picture. Jones said that he has seen new drive-ins come and go and doesn’t feel like it would be feasible to run one for a profit.
“They’re all crazy for doing it. We could go out and get the old drive-in running, but it would be suicide to run it alongside the Rialto theatre,” Jones said.
Some of Jones’ fondest memories come from hosting Ranger Night at the drive-in. They would let the first 100 Northwestern students in free and allow them to grill out and hang out with their friends as they watched the movie.
Kathy Earnest, long-time Alva resident and English professor at Northwestern Oklahoma State University, said she enjoyed smelling the night air and hearing the sounds of the outdoors as she watched movies at Alva’s drive-in.
Earnest said she was raised a farm girl and it was a big treat to be able to come into town and attend movies at the drive-in.
The number of drive-ins closing halted at less than 1,000 operating theaters in the ‘90s. The small number of drive-ins has remained relatively the same, but the American culture has slowly become interested in the drive-in again. Old drive-ins are getting renovations to satisfy their new customers, and owners are offering double and triple features for a low price.
A new drive in theatre has risen from the shambles in Guymon, Okla. Alka Lammes, owner of the Corral Drive-In, purchased the property in 2008. The theatre had been dormant for over 20 years. Lammes said that they remodeled the property which had been over-run by brush and trees.
“There is not much things to do for families in Guymon. We wanted to give families an option that was close to town,” Lammes said.
Along with its single screen, the Corral boasts a playground for children and a pizzeria/grill.
“People think the concession prices are so high, but that is what keeps the doors open for us,” Lammes said.
The Corral offers a double feature during its open season and will soon have a year-round RV park at its facilities. Modern day drive-ins are offering these varied services more often to help in turning a profit.
“We are just in our second year of business … we are just learning the trade as years go by,” Lammes said.
Today’s drive-in owners are beginning to lean towards family entertainment. More often than not theatres are showing family friendly double features. The drive-in has given families a cheaper alternative to a fun night away from home. Parents don’t have to worry about their children making too much noise and disrupting other theatre patrons.
According to www.winchesterdrive-in.com, the Winchester is the oldest operating drive-in located in Oklahoma. The Winchester was built in 1968 by the Shanbour family who still continues to run the theatre. A funeral home was the theatre’s lone neighbor when the drive-in was constructed. Oklahoma City has slowly developed around the theatre which is now surrounded by local businesses and homes. The Winchester is one of the only drive-ins in Oklahoma that offers a triple feature. For only six dollars, customers of the Winchester are able to watch three films from the comfort of their vehicle. On nice weekends during the summer months, customers must show up early to ensure their spot in the theatres 475 car lot. The Shanbour family plans to keep the drive-in open as long as they are alive.
Even though the business peaked over forty years ago the United States still boasts around 374 operating drive-in theatres. Oklahoma at its high point had nearly 100 drive-ins now the state plays host to five lone theatres.
One of the more popular drive-ins located in Oklahoma was the Admiral Twin located in Tulsa. Like the Winchester drive-in, the Admiral Twin sat along historic Route 66. Opened in 1951 the theatre provided drive-in entertainment for the Tulsa area for many years. The drive-in was featured in the 1983 movie “The Outsiders”. In Sept. 2010 the Admiral Twin burned to the ground several months shy of its sixtieth anniversary.
The rising cost of supplying the films and fierce competition from megaplexes, the internet and DVD’s have killed many modern drive-ins. Some owners have devised of ways besides raising concession stand prices to make their business viable by offering other attractions along with the feature films. According to Paul Lukas in his article “The Last Picture Shows” published in “Money”, The Fairlee Drive-In located in Fairlee, Vermont is also home to a motel. Customers can watch the films from their motel rooms which overlook the screen. Becky’s Drive-In Theatre in Walnutport, Pennsylvania offers pony rides to customers during its weekend run. Many drive-ins offer miniature golf courses such as Oklahoma’s own Chief Drive-In located in Chickasha.
Despite the small number of remaining theatres, Oklahoma is still a great place to catch a drive-in movie. The few theatres still operating offer features on the weekends near the beginning of summer. The drive-ins still in operation are The Tower Drive-In located in Poteau and the Beacon Drive-In located in Guthrie along with The Chief Drive-In located in Chickasha, The Winchester Drive-In located in Oklahoma City and The Corral Drive-In located in Guymon.
Drive-In theatres offer up a taste of nostalgia that can take a person back in time no matter how young or old they are. The industry seems to be in an upswing after many years of decline as parents reminisce their youth by taking families of their own to catch a double feature at a local drive-in theatre. Watching a movie at a drive-in theatre offers up the chance to forget about the hectic troubles of our daily lives and get lost in the past for a few hours. In the age of amazing technology and up-to-the-minute news it is nice to take a step back and enjoy the technology of years past while you take in the good company of family and friends.