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The history of the Drive In Theatre evolved into a story as much about teenage independence and cars as
about this new and different way of viewing movies, all
thanks to a gentleman by the name of Richard M. Hollingshead, Jr. Mr.
Hollingshead, Jr. opened the first, his Camden Drive-In Theater in Riverton,
New Jersey on June 6, 1933. Originally, his main intent was to sell
automotive products, which was his trade in life. He thought it would be
interesting to have a place where people could park their cars, grab a
bite to eat, and watch a movie, all in the same place. And, while they
were having a good time, he would offer his automotive products for
Mr. Hollingshead early experimentations with his "drive in"
idea consisted of a bed sheet anchored between two trees, a 1928 movie
projector which sat on the hood of his car, and wooden blocks which were
placed under the front tires. The front of the car was elevated for better viewing.
He added the final touch of putting a radio behind the bed sheet for "sound." He patented
his drive in idea in
The drive-in theater fulfilled two things for the American public: It
combined America's love affair with the automobile, and movies. The
Drive In provided a unique and comfortable way to enjoy a movie as well.
didn't want to dress up and do her hair all up, if dad didn't want to
put his shoes on or wanted to lounge around in a tee shirt, if they
didn't want to leave the kids with a babysitter or were concerned about
the tiny ones disrupting the folks around them as might happen in a
movie theatre, then forget the movie
house and head to the drive-in to enjoy a movie in the comfort of your
In these early days of drive-in theater history, large bull-horn speakers were
mounted in close proximity to the outdoor screen and the sound level
cranked up so all could hear. Besides bringing complaints from
surrounding neighborhoods (in some instances, the sound could be heard
more than two miles away!), those who parked in back rows had to
suffer through the delay in sound, making the movie difficult to watch.
"Concession stands" of this day and age weren't set up to handle
hundreds of people, so drive-in theater owners hired kids to go from car
to car, peddling popcorn, coffee, candy bars, and cokes.
(please jump up to the next column --->)
One of the biggest problems that faced these early versions of drive in
theatres was the availability of movies. Movies weren't easily obtainable. The major film distributors at the time believed no one in their right mind would want to sit in their car and watch a
movie. This left owners the task of locating films, and possibly having to
drive long distances (in some cases, over 100 miles one way) to get them.
Drive-in theaters spread across the country during the 1930's, springing
up in cow pastures and on the outskirts of cities. By 1942, over 100 were
doing a decent business. World War II slowed any growth
of the drive-in, but that would change dramatically once the war came to
Post World War II America was a time of incredible growth in all aspects
of personal living standards. With families reunited, new families just
getting started, and a great job market, many experienced something
relatively new for the first time in their lives: Extra Money. America's
ongoing love affair with the automobile grew as well, and the automobile
manufacturers worked 24 hours a day to keep up with the demand for cars. As
more and more Americans took to the roads behind the wheel of their
"ultimate expression of freedom," roadside stands, souvenir
places, and gas stations sprung up alongside the highways and roads that
led to work and Sunday outings.
The growth of drive-in theaters across the country was no exception.
Blueprints and drawings were fine tuned, and by the mid to late 1940's,
drive-in theaters were no longer cow pastures where Pop threw a sheet over a line, but places that were built to last.
From the end of World War
II to 1953, close to 3,000 drive-ins were built. The major film
distributors capitalized on this, and ate their earlier words. Some movies
were even made specifically for the drive in viewing audience. Ken Curtis,
who most will remember as Festus from the old Gunsmoke television show,
made several movies particularly for the drive in going crowd.
RCA was responsible for the development of the speaker that we are most
familiar with. The speakers spent most of their daylight hours hanging on
posts, but when darkness fell, and the crowds drove in, the speakers were
hooked onto side windows, and in some cases, yanked from their home by
drivers who forgot to remove the speaker before leaving the theatre.
7pm on Thursday, August 3, 1950, the Drive-In Theatre marquee flickered
to life on the outskirts of Columbus Indiana. Flashing yellow lights within the borders of a curved
arrow pointed 31A passer-bys to a new place of
entertainment for Columbus residents.
The Drive-In Theatre, one mile north on 31A, offered an inexpensive night out for mom and dad. It gave
dad a chance to show off the new family car and gave mom the opportunity to enjoy a movie without
having to get all dressed up. There was no need to hire a babysitter.
Just throw the kids in the car with a couple of pillows and a blanket.
During these early years of the The Drive In, it was only open during the
warmer months of the year, and only on the weekends. By 1956, while we watched the Wizard Of Oz on tv for the very first time, and Elvis
could be found, "sittin' home all alone" on one of the 2,790 AM
radio stations across the country, local Columbus residents who might have
purchased the Evening Republican on October 24th surely saw the following
The Drive In was very soon to become a year round business.
to next column ----->
As well as being an outlet for family entertainment, 1956 also saw the
emergence of a greater and higher purpose of the Drive In. It's audience
was changing, and while mom and dad sat home and watched Gunsmoke on
Saturday nights on their newly purchased television set, teenagers grabbed their dates and drove the
"One Mile North on 31A" to cajole with their friends and find some serious
"private time" with their girl. The Rembusch family, who owned
the Drive In, as well as the other movie theatres in Columbus, were smart
in capitalizing on this newly-found teenage freedom, and bought
advertising space in Columbus High School logs, as the following ad from the 1955 Log
Among teenage circles, the Drive-In suddenly became known as the Passion Pit, and
it wasn't unusual to find the back row filled with those who had more
important motives than watching the movie playing on the outdoor screen.
It wouldn't be too difficult to argue the point that "Arvin In-A-Car
Heaters" weren't the only thing heating up those automobile
interiors, but, just maybe, they had been installed to capitalize on this
particular Columbus audience. The slogan "There's More Fun at the
Movies" was a teenage definite at the Drive-In now, all year round.
"We used to try and sneak into the Drive-In," a friend of
mine told me. "A couple of us would sit in the front. It was useless
to try to get in with just the driver, 'cause they'd be sure to check the
back of the car to see how low it was sittin'. Sometimes, we got caught
and sometimes we didn't."
A tidbit of useless information: The Columbus Drive-In was the very first
place in Columbus where you could buy pizza.
The popularity of
Drive In movie theatres in the 1950's can partially be judged by
this toy that Remco released in 1959. "Movieland," came
complete with a "film" that was hand-cranked, and cars
that sat in the parking lot. Popcorn was NOT included...
My dad called me one week in 1992 and told me they
were going to tear down the Drive In. I made a special point to
"come home" that weekend before the demolition began,
called the owner, and asked if it would be ok if I paid my last
respects to the place. This heater check is one of the things I
picked up that Saturday. I tried my best to remove the clock that
once hung above the drive-through area where tickets were sold,
but I didn't have a pair of wire cutters. I truly regret the fact
that I didn't go back and borrow a pair from dad. I wanted that
clock so bad!
bulbs once flickered shades of yellows on hot summer nights outside the
Columbus Indiana city limits on what we knew as highway 31-A (now 11, or
Indianapolis Road). The marquee advertised the double feature offerings,
and sometimes triple features. It wasn't unusual for the Drive In to offer
Dusk to Dawn movies on special occasions, and for a number of years, this
was the only place in Columbus to watch the fireworks display on the 4th of July
partial architectural drawing depicts general information very close to
how the Columbus Drive In was set up. This was found in a three ring
binder I dug out of a dumpster in Wabash Indiana in the early 1990's. The
owners of the Eagles Theatre in Wabash were doing a major renovation of
the interior, and the binder was just one of
the pieces they tossed out and saved from a watery fate that day. The name Fred Ellington
was taped across the front of the binder, and inside was a maintenance log
of both the Columbus Drive In and the Crump Theatre, as well as several
other theatres scattered across the State. There were a few
pictures inside the binder, most of which you will find on this page.
ad for the Drive In highlights the Columbus Zephyr, a train ride for the
kiddies. The train circled around 2200 feet of track and through a
tunnel. The Columbus Zephyr debuted at the Drive In in 1951, one year
after the Drive In first opened its gates.
The Drive-In appealed to all walks of life, across the board. There was
a playground for the kiddies with swings, a merry-go-round, and
teeter-totters, and the most famous attraction, the Columbus Zephyr. It
clickety-clacked along the tracks from the time the Drive-In opened the
gates, and continued rides until the show started. I doubt if there are any Columbus
kids who grew up during this time that don't remember the train, the
tunnel, and the "thrill" it gave. "Keep your hands inside
the train!" was the most popular aphorism among those engineers who
drove the train and rang the bell.
by Joe Harpring
above picture was originally published in the Republic. Mike Green,
a local Columbus resident, located the old Columbus Zephyr years after the Drive-In
closed, and completely restored it. Back in 2002, I tried my hand at
fund-raising for the Crump Theatre. I located the train, which is
now owned by Robert McCallen, one-time mayor of Wabash, Indiana. The
"Columbus Zephyr" is set up at Mr. McCallen's daughter's
house, and provides his grandkids with rides almost
anytime they please (how lucky can one get?!). I tried my best to
"borrow" the train as part of the fund-raiser, as I
wanted to bring it back to Columbus to set out in front of Cummins
Bookstore, the place where I held my fund-raiser. I contacted the
Mayor's office, and Fred Armstrong wrote a nice letter which I forwarded
to Mr. McCallen.
A crane and a
large, flat-bed truck would have been needed to move the engine and
cars from Wabash to Columbus, and I don't think the owner wanted to
take a chance with something happening to it. So, in the end, his
decision was that the train would remain in Wabash.
You don't know
how disappointed I was. It probably would have helped to raise a lot
more money for the Crump had I been successful.
in next column–––>
The Drive-In was equipped with a "washing area" where one
could clean any bugs or bird droppings from their windshield. It was just beyond the building
where you stopped and bought your tickets, right next to a sign that
read "Dim Your Headlights."
If you wanted to get a good "seat," it was imperative that
you got there early. It
wasn't unusual for the Drive In to fill up, and cars reluctantly turned
Kids with blankets sometimes laid across the hoods of cars, on the
roofs of cars, and sometimes in the backs of pickup trucks.
Sometimes lawn chairs were taken out of the trunk and placed
alongside the car. And, if
you didn't feel like sitting in your car to watch the movie, a
good-sized patio area was provided in front of the concession stand with some
benches, tables, and chairs.
One of the greatest treats about going to the Drive In was the
of these spots look familiar?
Intermission usually ran around ten minutes, and between the
countdown spots, which normally consisted of a picture of a clock
("it's eight minutes till showtime!"), ads for coca-cola,
hot dogs, pizza, barbeque sandwiches, hamburgers, delicious hot
coffee, and the all-time favorite, popcorn, tempted the viewing
audience. Trailers for upcoming movies weren't shown during the
Intermission time. These were always shown before the feature film
began, and in most cases, a cartoon followed.
The food at the Drive In wasn't that great, but it was all the same
enjoyable. It wasn't unusual for a family to pack a "dinner"
and bring it with them. Coolers of cokes (and sometimes beer)
weren't an uncommon sight. But, if you brought drinks and thought
you'd capitalize on using the ice from the concession stand, think
again! The owners of the Drive In charged as much for a cup of ice
as for a regular drink. They blamed it on the fact that their
inventory was set up by the "cup system," which means you
only forgot to bring ice one time...
Intermission also provided a break. A chance to get out of the car
and stretch some. Kids ran up and down the aisles of cars, some were
yelled at while others had a grand old time, and
the restrooms were the second most popular place, while all the
time, the clock ticked down between advertisements for mouth
watering barbeque sandwiches and delicious, hot steamy cups of
coffee, until you heard that "And Now--On
With The Show!" which signaled the movie was about to
The Drive In was a place to socialize and have a good time. On some
occasions, "Dusk to Dawn" movies were shown all night. If
you could hang in there until the credits from the last picture
finished rolling, you were treated to a free cup of coffee from the
It was imperative that you remembered to remove your speaker before
pulling out of your slot, otherwise, chances were pretty good you'd
break your window, or pull the speaker loose from the post.
Wheeler's article from The Republic, which accompanied the above photo of Mike Green. Date
Although the Drive In was a "teen" hangout throughout the
1950's and 1960's, a wide variety of movies were shown. Movie offerings
were designed to appeal and appease everyone with extra money. Westerns,
war movies, love stories, religious themes, and horror movies are only a few of the
selections shown at any given time. Movies normally didn't play as long at the
Drive-In as in the movie theatres such as the Crump and Rio Theatres.
Friday, Saturday, and Sundays were the normal playing time for films,
with a fresh new batch of whatever showing the following week.
Drive In began showing movies all year round, times were also
expanded and included the showing of movies during the week. Dollar
Night, or "Buck Night" was a common practice on Mondays, and it was hard to beat this price. The
Drive In tried to capture as much business as they could, but even
though the Buck Nights were offered for a number of years, the most
popular time to go to the Drive In was the weekend. Many families,
however, did take advantage of this special offer, and Buck Nights
proved to be a successful venture for the Drive In.
wasn't unusual to have a chance to see a "Triple Feature" on
Buck Nite, as this ad from the mid-1950's suggests. The Drive In
stressed the comfort of watching movies at a reasonable price. This was
family entertainment, another selling point they would harp on
throughout the years. Another selling feature was the availability of
parking, but after all, the Drive In was nothing more than a glorified
parking lot, so "parking" was very convenient for all.
In the 42 years the Columbus Drive In was open, it showed more
movies than either the Crump or the Rio Theatres.
Movies were "turned over" at a faster rate, and it was
very rare that any film was "held over." While the movie
theatres in Columbus played first runs of movies, the Drive In
couldn't afford them. Money wasn't made from the sales of the
tickets, but from the snack bar. Many film distributors priced
movies too high for Drive Ins to make any money renting them.
Thus, they were forced to rent B movies, or wait until the initial
run of "new" movies was finished. For the Drive In, it was a necessity to
offer the viewing public a "better" selection every
week, instead of keeping movies on the bill for a longer period of
time. This only added to the popularity of the Drive In, and more
or less guaranteed a good sized crowd every week.
picture of the Drive In was found in that 3 ring binder in Wabash.
I would assume this picture was taken not long after the sides to
the screen were added, thus extending the size of the picture.
Note the two brackets on either side of the screen in this
picture of the Columbus Drive In from the 3 ring binder. Sorry, I
don't know the person on the motorcycle. This picture was taken
sometime before the screen was enlarged.
picture from the 3-ring binder shows a screen being raised or
lowered. After studying this picture for some time, I don't think
it was taken in Columbus. The landscape looks very different from
that of the Columbus Drive In. At first I thought it might have
been taken around the time the Drive In was first built, but the
van in the picture more or less proves that thought wrong. While
the jeep looks as though it's an older model, the van appears to
be a model from the 1960's. Maybe some of you out there can help
to place this picture.
providing a night out on the town, the Drive In was also a Sunday
place of worship, as this picture from the 1950's attests.
from the 1961 Columbus High School Yearbook
In 1992, after 42 years of service to the community, the
owners of the Drive In sold the property. It wasn't because
business was that bad. As it turns out, the property was
worth quite a bit, and a certain developer was interested in
acquiring the property.
I made a special point to return to Columbus that weekend
before it was to be demolished, and after a phone call to
the owner, I drove that "one mile north on 31A"
one last time to pay my respects to the place.
I parked my car by the concession stand. The speaker posts
were still set in the ground, but the speakers had been
removed. Looking at all the posts sticking up reminded me of
I remembered those nights from my youth as I walked along the
aisles where cars once slowly cruised with only the parking
lights on...watching fireworks explode above the screen on
hot and sticky 4th of July nights...riding the train as many
times as I possibly could before the movie
started...sometimes just standing back and watching it make
its way around the tracks.
Today, the property where the Drive In used to be, stands
empty. Looking at the place, you can't even tell a drive in
used to be there.
But there will always remain memories to keep it alive...
picture of the woman standing in front of the sign was taken in
1955. The Drive In, Columbus Indiana: One Mile North on 31A
Memories, is copyrighted © 2005, by David Sechrest for the
Historic Columbus Indiana website. With the exception of quoting
brief passages for the purposes of review no part of this writing
may be reproduced without prior written permission from me.
The American Drive-In Movie
Theatre, by Don & Susan Sanders
© 1997, published by Motorbooks International Publishers &
Wholesalers, was used as a reference for the writing of this article