Drive-ins fight to keep movies rolling - Mid-South News, Weather, Traffic and Sports | FOX13

Drive-ins fight to keep movies rolling

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SHELBY COUNTY, Tenn. (FOX13) -

Once upon a time when the world was younger and the joys of escapism weren't confined to video games, more than 4,000 drive-in movie theatres dotted the landscape of America.

They sprawled for acres with sights, sounds and cinematic grandeur projected on towering screens glowing in the outdoor darkness. Places primed to serve as a welcoming backdrop for magic memories of a first kiss, driving your first car or creating family moments of togetherness for young and old alike.

"Everybody gets in the truck, gets in the car, sits in the backseat, had your pajamas on," said Shelby County Commissioner Melvin Burgess, Jr. "That's when I was a little kid. Had your pajamas on so you could go right to sleep. It was a treat."

"Something that the parents could go to and then have the relaxation of looking at the movie themselves and the kids could get in the back or outside on the hood," remembered Commissioner Sidney Chism. "Anywhere, but get out of mom or dad's way."

"We didn't have drive-ins where I was from on the farm in Nebraska," added Commissioner Heidi Shafer. "But, the two times I've been have been in Memphis. I thought they were phenomenal."
 
Nationwide drive-ins enjoyed the peak of their heyday in the late 1950s. While the first one in Memphis opened in 1937, visionary businessman Kemmons Wilson, later founder of Holiday Inn, created a deluxe drive-in on Summer Avenue in 1948, complete with a 65-foot screen and poles where flashing red lights signaled snack vendors to go take food orders from patrons.

At one point the Bluff City sported 10 drive-in venues, including the Lincoln drive-in, the first black-owned and operated in 1952.

"We went to the movie at least once a month," recalled Commissioner Chism. "Two or three bags of popcorn, a little candy, soft drink. Always got us a red drink. Couldn't get too many Coca-Colas back then. You had to get a red drink."

Unlike the Lincoln, the majority of drive-ins in the country were small businesses, in small towns, geared to handle 100 cars or less and usually set just outside the city limits. For a Lebanon, Tenn., youngster named A C Wharton, his first drive-in experience was a reflection of the societal change that was still a work in progress.

"It's good and bad memories," said Wharton, now the mayor of Memphis. "It was bad in the sense that I know it had to be like a special permission for my daddy to take the whole family out there. We could not get out of the car and go buy popcorn and stuff like that though. Cause really the owner didn't want anybody to know we were there."

But, while race relations would improve, the once flourishing drive-in business went in an opposite direction. Now thousands of giant screens have dwindled to less than 400 in the country, victims of the rise of multi-plex indoor theatres, technological advances and the instant gratification required by audiences.

"You can't run no second run stuff hardly cause after a month or two," said James Lloyd, Memphis Malco engineer. "It's on the Internet or on tape. Digital stuff. We at Summer Drive-In, day of date with indoor houses."

The new age drive-in, like the state-of-the-art Malco Summer Twin, has responded to the challenges. Its four-screen plex has made the expensive $80,000-$100,000 transition all drive-ins will very soon be required to make in order to run digital motion pictures.

"It's sharper and get more light on the screen than you would with the old Zevon lamps or the old carbon lamps," Lloyd said. "It made a big difference in the amount of light we're getting on the screen."

Just this year, 20 outdoor drive-ins nationwide, nine in one week went dark. Yet, Lloyd says some new drive-ins have been built in Texas. Appropriately, the answer to keeping those numbers from dwindling may lie in the generosity of a film industry, cognizant of maintaining  valuable outlets for their products.
 
"Mom and pop places, they're having a lot of problems getting it," Lloyd said. "But, a lot of times, the film companies will work with them. Put the equipment in and you pay so much every time you run a movie."

Which means there's probably going to still be a place for that first kiss, to drive that new car to, and to share a few hours of family pleasure outdoors in the dark.

"To be sitting right there with your family, they're all right there with you in this tiny car," Mayor Wharton said. "The warmth, the togetherness. I'll never forget."

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