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The Drive In, Columbus Indiana: "One Mile North On 31A" Memories

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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 sale.

     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 1932.



     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. If mom 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 own car.

     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.

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     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 an end.

     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. 






      At 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 ad:


     The Drive In was very soon to become a year round business.


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     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 will attest.



     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!



The 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


This 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.




This 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.


photo by Joe Harpring

    The 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.


continued 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 away.

     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 Intermission.







Any 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 begin.

     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 snack bar. 

     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.



Nancy Wheeler's article from The Republic, which accompanied the above photo of Mike Green. Date uncertain


     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.


   When the 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.



It 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.

This 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.


Another 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.

This 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.

Besides 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.

Ad 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 Arlington Cemetery.

     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...

    The 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