UA-53645469-1 At the Drive-In
Memphis Type History: The Podcast

At the Drive-In

August 20, 2017

In this episode of Memphis Type History: The Podcast, you’ll find out how the drive-in movie theater started, hear Rebecca’s sister tell her childhood memories of the drive in, and answer the question that has been the source of many contentious debates in Memphis for years: which side of the highway was the Summer Avenue Drive in originally located?

Richard Hollingshead starts the Drive-In, of course, for his mom. As a sales manager for his father’s company, Whiz Auto Products, Hollingshead understood the automobile and society’s love for cars. He also understood some people, like his mom, had a hard time finding a comfortable seat in the town’s lavish theater. Thus, he worked on an idea to create a movie watching experience in the comfort of your own car. Mounting a 1928 Kodak projector on the hood of his car, tying sheets to trees, and with his radio, he practiced his clever project in his own driveway. In May of 1933 he received a patent for his concept and opened the first Drive-In Theater on Tuesday, June 6 of the same year in Pennsauken, New Jersey. 

At some point between the late 1950s to early 60s around 4,000 Drive-In theaters existed across the country. One of the largest was in Copiague, New York which provided space for 2,500 parked cars, a kid’s playground and a full service restaurant. Apparently, there were several factors in the decline of the drive-in. First, the widespread adoption of daylight savings made it difficult for the movies to start at a reasonable hour. Secondly, the oil crisis in the seventies made people more unlike to do anything in the car if they could avoid it. Still, drive-ins have managed to survive into the current era but there are fewer than 500 in existence today.

GROWING UP AT THE DRIVE-IN

Rebecca's sister actually has some vivid memories of going to the movie theater, especially the drive in where we grew up in South Texas. The whole experience of bringing food, packing into the car, seeing some new and exciting film, was an escape from what could sometimes feel like an otherwise dull and restricting working class lifestyle. It should be noted in the podcast Rebecca's sister says she was born in 1979 which is true even though she tries to sound more like 79 years old to make the memory more genuine. Plus they sound almost exactly alike so hopefully this helps distinguish them.

THE SUMMER AVENUE DRIVE IN GREAT DEBATE

That brings us to the Summer Avenue Drive-In. If you talk to many Memphians, especially those that have lived here for a long time, you’ll run into questions about what side of the highway it was on originally: west or east? It turns out that’s a trick question because it was neither on the east or west side of the highway because at the time there was no highway!

The current drive-in did move into its current location, across the highway to the west after the construction of the highway in 1966. The original drive-in was said to have the largest marquee sign in the South and the second largest car capacity at more than 600. 

We also learned the founder of Holiday Inn, Kemmons Wilson, was one of the original owners of the movie theater and he intended for there to be a skating rink directly in front of the screen. In addition, the original theater offered services many of us would love to have access to, especially moms, like warming a bottle of milk for a baby! Although the skating rink may or may not have actually ever been used and several of the other big ideas for the theater were never realized, it was still very popular and entertained crowds for many years. It did close and was eventually demolished before the new Summer Drive-In opened in 1966.

Caitlin and Rebecca went to see a movie at the current Summer Drive-In several years ago. You’ll have to listen to the podcast to get the whole story, though. You’ll also hear about someone who may be living in an apartment above the concession stand.

The Summer Drive-In now remains a popular spot for families, teenagers, and just about anyone who loves movies in Memphis. You can listen to the movie audio through a radio station that tunes in once you drive onto the lot and the sign is characterized by vintage sculptures and a classic Beetle car above the marquee.

For full show notes, visit memphistypehistory.com/drivein