By Joann M. Ringelstetter
Today is the last day of June, so I am coming in at the buzzer on this story. Eighty years ago this month (June 6, 1933 to be exact), the first outdoor movie theater was opened in Camden, New Jersey by Richard Hollingshead.
The cost was 25 cents per person plus 25 cents per car to watch a British comedy called “Wives Beware.” Although a few more outdoor theaters opened over the next few years, the concept didn’t really catch on until the early 1940s when movie-goers were provided with in-car speakers.
In the 1950s, the idea really started to take off and, by 1958, there were over 4,000 outdoor theaters. Drive-in theaters offered more flexibility for families, especially those with small children. The movies were often family-friendly and small children could be taken care of while watching the movie.
On nostalgic Route 66 near Carthage, Missouri , stands the 66 Drive-In Theatre, which opened on September 22, 1949 during the post-war auto boom. At the entrance, along old Route 66, stands the original neon theater sign. On August 1 of this year, the 66 Drive-In Theatre is hosting a special screening of the 2006 Disney-Pixar animated film “Cars” as part of the International Route 66 Festival. The real Route 66, with its famous landmarks, provided inspiration for this movie and the 66 Drive-In is featured in one of the movie scenes.
As I was preparing to write this blog post, a faint memory kept coming to mind, but I wasn’t at all sure whether it really happened. So I asked my older sister Phyllis if we had gone to an outdoor theater when I was a small child. I told her that I remembered that the whole family had piled into the car and had gone to see….could it have been The Sound of Music? My only recollection was that, by the time the movie finally started, I couldn’t stay awake anymore.
I guess I got Phyllis’ gears turning because she did recall us going, but her Internet search on the Badger Drive-In (an outdoor theater on the east side of Madison that opened in 1948) and the Sound of Music wasn’t successful. And then she remembered that we had gone to see a double-feature and, to her surprise, the name of the second movie came back to her. So she searched on that movie and came up with an ad for the Badger Drive-In from August 8, 1961.
The Badger Drive-In on the east side of Madison was connected with the Big Sky Drive-In on the west side of Madison. The ad was for both theaters and it said:
TONITE at the DRIVE-IN THEATRES!
Open 7:00 p.m.
“Gidget Goes Hawaiian”
In Rainbow Color
“The Trapp Family”
“Snow White and the 3 Stooges”
A little research on The Trapp Family movie revealed that it was a successful 1956 West German film that was dubbed in English and released in the US in 1961. Four years later, the story of the von Trapp family would be told again in the Julie Andrews musical, “The Sound of Music.” Phyllis said she didn’t remember The Trapp Family film at all, but recalled that it was our mother who was the driving force behind the whole family going (all seven of us) because she wanted to see the Trapp family movie.
Phyllis did remember that she and our brother Dave enjoyed Snow White and the 3 Stooges. I, unfortunately, have only the memory of being very upset with myself for not being able to stay awake for either of them.
The Badger Drive-In expanded to four screens in 1979 and, according to an old ad, was still showing four double features in 1989. At that time, the “Early Bird” ticket price until 7:30 p.m. was $1.75. Phyllis remembers taking her kids to the Badger Drive-In and “they would usually be asleep in the backseat before the movies even started.” I know how that goes!
In 2008, an article entitled, “The History of the Drive-In Movie Theater” on Smithsonian.com reported that only about 400 drive-ins remain in the United States. Before it’s too late, grab the family some evening, pile into the car, and head out for a movie under the stars!
A special thanks to our sister, Phyllis, for all her help in putting this story together.