Drive-In Movie Theaters
By Joe Russo
The first drive-in movie theater opened in Camden, New Jersey, in 1933 to little fanfare, but this unusual business plan gradually morphed into a national sensation during the 1940s and 1950s.
Drive-ins were popular for many reasons. They offered family entertainment at a very reasonable price. Many drive-ins had playgrounds, prize drawings, miniature golf, and even pony rides for children. People did not have to worry about dressing up and they could even take off their shoes. Drive-in concession stands had expanded menus that included sandwiches and fries. Children and even babies could be piled in the car, eliminating the need for a babysitter. Teenagers met their friends away from the prying eyes and ears of adults. Drive-ins also had a reputation as “passion pits” for young couples on dates.
By 1960 over 4000 drive-ins were operating across the United States. North Carolina had 66 drive-ins in 1948 and ten years later there were 200, ranking the state in the top ten in the country. Drive-ins in western North Carolina included the Starlite and Dreamland in Asheville, the Joy Drive-in in Hendersonville, the Roxy Theater in Old Fort, and Waynesville’s Smokey Mountain.
Hale Siniard opened Brevard’s first drive-In, The Star, in the spring of 1949. The newspaper advertisement for the grand opening the provided theatergoers with directions: 300 yards from the red light on Asheville Highway near the railroad crossing, which is today behind where the Tidal Wash car wash and CVS are located. The ad mentions that trucks are permitted and that smokers can enjoy their favorite cigarette in the privacy of their own car. The opening weekend movie was “Stage to Mesa City” starring Lash LaRue.
In June 1950, the Brevard Drive-In was opened by owner J.D. Moore on the Hendersonville Highway “between the airstrip and Biltmore Dairy farms”. Admission was 45 cents for adults, 30 cents for students, and children under 12 were free. There were 300 parking spaces with individual speakers for each car. The concession stand was actually set up in the projection room.
The first film shown there was “Out of the Blue”, a comedy starring George Brent and Virginia Mayo. Others screened during opening week including “Mexican Hayride” with Abbot and Costello and “Arthur Takes Over” starring Lois Collier and Richard Crane. The theater proudly advertised their new DeVry projector. The DeVry were portable 35 mm projectors, smaller than those used in indoor theaters, with a reputation for high-quality.
The Star Drive-In did not last long, going out of business by the mid-1950’s. The Brevard Drive-In was more successful, continuing through 1976. The drive-in concept was dying by the late 1980s, with less than 200 left in the United States and Canada. They went out of business for a number of reasons including small profit margins, the introduction of the multi-plex theater, high prices for the land they occupied, and the development of VHS players and cable television. Today, there are only a handful of drive-in theaters still operating in North Carolina, the closest being in Shelby and King’s Mountain.
Photographs and information for this column are provided by the Rowell Bosse North Carolina Room, Transylvania County Library. This article was written by Local History Assistant Joe Russo. For more information, comments, or suggestions, contact NC Room staff at [email protected] or 828-884-1820.