Once popular drive-in theaters have faded from Sumter view


This week Reflections remembers the entertainment phenomenon known as the drive-in theater.

These entertainment centers usually consisted of a large parking lot, a projection booth and a concession stand. Many facilities offered a playground for children, picnic tables and benches for their patrons. The late Mike Karvelas, a columnist for The Sumter Item, wrote an article about this topic, and many of his personal revelations and findings on this topic follow.

According to Karvelas, the number of drive-in theaters in the United States had fallen drastically by 1990 - from 3,700 to 700. Those remaining in operation during this period depended on "a loyal or captive audience made up increasingly of parents looking to save on babysitting expenses or young people in small towns with no place else to go." He noted that the drive-in was king of the fair-weather businesses: "When gas and tire rationing ended after World War II, and automobiles replace airplanes on factory assembly lines, drive-in cinemas sprang up like mushrooms across America." The proprietors of these businesses often proclaimed that they were "air-conditioned by nature."

Karvelas wrote that "the first drive-in patented was the Camden Automobile Theater opened by chemical magnate Richard Hollingshead on a 10-acre site near Camden, New Jersey. He conducted outdoor tests by nailing a screen to trees in his backyard and setting a 1928 Kodak projector on the hood of his car and put a radio behind the screen, testing different sound levels with his car windows down and up." According to Wikipedia, "Hollingshead placed blocks under vehicles in the driveway enabling him to determine the size and space between the ramps so that all automobiles could have a clear view of the screen."

The theater began operation on June 6, 1933, with a presentation of "Wife Beware," starring Adolphe Menjou. The cinema's screen measured 40 by 30 feet, and there were spaces for 400 cars. The sound came from high-volume screen speakers produced by RCA-Victor. A "partial drive-in theater opened in Las Cruces, New Mexico, on April 23, 1915, with its first showing being 'Bags of Gold' produced by Siegmund Lubin" according to Wikipedia.

Karvelas noted that RCA would introduce an in-car speaker system in 1941. "In the meantime, the screen speakers of the pioneer drive-ins had been replaced by multiple-site speakers providing sound for two cars side by side."

World War II severely hindered the growth of the entertainment industry. Twelve years (1945) after the opening of the Camden Theater, "there were still only 60 theaters in the entire nation. The growth years of the drive-in were the same as television, for no apparent reason. By 1949 there were 1,000 drive-ins with the peak expansion being reached in 1958 with 4,063, as opposed to 12,291 indoor movies (called hard tops TVs in the trade)."

According to Wikipedia "one of the largest drive-in theaters was the Johnny All-Weather Drive-In, located in Copiague, New York. This facility covered more than 29 acres and parked 2,500 vehicles, it had a full-service restaurant with seating on the roof, also a trolley system to take children and adults to a playground and a large indoor theater for bad weather or for those who wanted to watch in air-conditioned comfort."

There were three drive-ins in Sumter during the 1950s: The Sunset on East Liberty, the Sky-vue and Sumter Drive-Ins on Broad Street. The theaters usually ran double features with showings suspended during the coldest months of the year. With the coming of shopping centers and industry, the theaters were lost to the expanding need for land. The Sky-vue was relocated to North Pike and lasted into the '80s. Those theaters that exist today "have sound piped into car radios, on set a.m. dials. Their numbers continue to shrink as they are abandoned by audiences in favor of video stores and multiplexes. In 1967, the Capri Drive-in was advertised to be constructed at the intersection of the Camden Road and Alice Drive Extension; however, it appears that this facility did not materialize.

One feature that remained constant with drive-ins, according to Karvelas, was the "clarity of the picture depended on how clean your windshield was."

Source: Photos and information from Sumter Item archives.

Reach Sumter Item Archivist Sammy Way at waysammy@yahoo.com or (803) 774-1294.