Drive ins

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By Taylor Eldridge Staff Writer teldridge@opubco.com

Owner and operator Lindy Shanbour in front of the Winchester Drive-In movie theater.  Staff Photo by Paul Hellstern
Owner and operator Lindy Shanbour in front of the Winchester Drive-In movie theater.Staff Photo by Paul Hellstern

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If he could share with you one thing from his life, Lindy Shanbour would show you the view.

He would chauffeur you to the Winchester Drive-In, Oklahoma City's last standing outdoor theater at 6930 S Western, where Shanbour has been the owner since its inception in 1968.

He would take you to his office, a tiny, quaint room connected to the concessions in the epicenter of the drive-in. Like everything else at the Winchester, Shanbour is waging an ongoing war against dilapidation.

Nearly every inch of the walls is covered in movie memorabilia, save for a window that stretches horizontally across the back panel. This is where he would bring you, on a Friday night, to peer out of this decrepit window.

You would see row after row of pickups, hatchbacks and SUVs. Families sprawled out on blankets and in lawn chairs. Fathers and sons throwing a football around. Children running, laughing and screaming.

None of this would remind you of the fact that drive-ins are becoming a lost art. There was a time when more than 100 drive-ins thrived in Oklahoma. Today six remain.

The effort exerted to keep their drive-ins alive became too great for many owners. When they looked through their windows, they saw a dying business. But Shanbour is striving for a different vision.

"This right here, this is the greatest view in the world," Shanbour said, gazing out of his window. "It's too hard to explain to other people. They just don't know. They just don't know the feeling."

A PIECE OF AMERICANA "It's a piece of Americana. There's nothing like it. It's just red, white and blue." - Blake Smith, co-owner of the Admiral Twin Drive-In in Tulsa

When Richard Hollingshead opened the first drive-in movie theater on June 6, 1933, in Camden, N.J., it was not as much about watching a film as it was about another excuse to drive.

Hollingshead played to the American public's fascination with automobiles, and his drive-ins didn't take long to catch on. His invention peaked 25 years later, as 4,063 drive-ins opened for the summer of 1958.

It wasn't until World War II ended when Oklahoma joined the craze. The Austin brothers, Will C. and Earl, opened Oklahoma's first outdoor theater, "the Austin Drive-In," in Lawton on May 16, 1946.

Within seven years, 93 other drive-ins opened around the state in more than 50 cities.

If you were old enough to drive, you were at a drive-in on Friday or Saturday night. Its popularity was shared with all classes; families went to spend quality time together, teenagers used it as a hang-out spot and couples transformed it into a "passion pit."

"It was just magic being there," Gene Johnson, 69, of Edmond said. "We spent many evenings eating homemade popcorn, drinking dime sodas and trying to stay awake during the feature film while people-watching."

Almost as fast as they became a sensation, drive-ins suddenly began disappearing in the ‘70s.

Daylight savings time started in 1967, making it a late night for anyone trying to catch a double-feature. Indoor theaters soon surpassed their outdoor counterparts in popularity.

But Wesley Horton, a drive-in historian from Oklahoma who founded the American Institute of Drive-In Archaeology, suspects another reason for the sudden demise -- an increase in property value. Most drive-ins built in the ‘50s and ‘60s were in rural areas. But as the population increased and cities expanded outward, they soon became valuable pieces of land for malls and shopping centers.

"When you're making $20,000 and Walmart comes in and offers you a million dollars, you would be a fool not to take it," Horton said.

People watch Brave at the Winchester Drive-In in Oklahoma City. Staff Photo by Sarah Phipps
People watch Brave at the Winchester Drive-In in Oklahoma City. Staff Photo by Sarah Phipps

Today six drive-ins remain operating: the Admiral Twin in Tulsa, the Beacon in Guthrie, the Chief in Chickasha, the Corral in Guymon, the Tower in Poteau and the Winchester in Oklahoma City.

They serve as a vestige to an era many, like Helen Bowden of Yukon, suspect never to return.

"As I enter the 75th year of my life," Bowden said, "having experienced so many of the joys and sorrows that adult life brings, including the death of a child and life as a single parent, I sometimes allow myself for a short moment to relive these memories. Any time I drive down Highway 66 and see the tattered and worn marquee of the Lake Air Drive-In, I would so much like to spend just one more Saturday with my first love at the drive-in movies."

WAITING FOR BETTER DAYS

On a Wednesday night last fall, Barbara Egbert can remember a total of two cars pulling in to the Chief Drive-In in Chickasha.

Nights like this force her to wonder more than once why she continues down this path that seemingly has an inevitable ending.

"But I can't turn them away," Egbert said. "My heart is in this business, and I would hate if I drove from far away and someone told me, ‘Oh, we're closed because we have to have a minimum of 10 cars.' I couldn't do that to people."

No owners looking to turn a profit are left. They've long since been weeded out. What are left are mostly family run businesses that rely on rapport with their communities.

Owners try to make it known they only keep a fourth of their ticket sales, which leaves concessions as the lone money-maker.

"That's why it's so discouraging when we're picking up and we see McDonald's bags or pizza boxes laying around," said Amber Pickell, who runs the Tower Drive-In in Poteau with her husband, Jon. "When you see stuff like that, you start to feel a little bit down."

Once a pillar of drive-in attendance, families have stopped coming as frequently.

"Family time isn't what it used to be," Marsh Powell, owner of the Beacon, surmises.

Drive-ins are often iconic pieces of architecture in their communities; maybe none was more iconic than the wooden tower of the Admiral Twin in Tulsa. But two years ago this summer, owner Blake Smith received a phone call with devastating news: the Admiral Twin had burned down.

The reality of not having a drive-in in the city sank in.

"Cities are losing their identities," Smith said. "When you start losing historical and traditional things that make your city your city, you start to worry. You don't want to see everything be uprooted."

After two years of planning, Smith staged a grand reopening in June. Part of Tulsa's identity was retrieved. But, even Smith isn't sure how long it can last.

"This may have been the worst investment of my life, or it could have been a great one," Smith said. "I'll tell you a year from now."

Yet, owners keep laboring away, pouring hours and hours of their time into their investment. Given the hypothetical option to leave for any other occupation, the owners were unified.

"I would still be sitting right here," Shanbour said. "Right here. This is what I love doing."

Firefighters battle a blaze at the Admiral Twin Drive-In movie theater that consumed the main screen in the summer of 2010. The iconic Admiral Twin, built in 1951, re-opened with new steel frames this June. Photo Provided by The Tulsa World

AN ERA GONE BY "We have to find a way to give our children drive-in movie theaters." - Gwen Wharton, 64, Norman

In her 64 years of living, Gwen Wharton, of Norman, hasn't fallen blind to the parallels between life and the drive-in.

During Wharton's childhood, drive-ins were booming. As often as possible, her family would pile into the station wagon with bottles full of Kool-Aid and bags of homemade popcorn on the way to Northwest Highway or Cinema 70 Drive-In in Oklahoma City.

Once a parking spot was found, blankets were spread over the hood of the car and on the ground for the movie later. Until then, her and her siblings roamed free through the playground. Parents didn't have to worry back then, as she points out.

Wharton continued attending drive-ins throughout high school, as her view of them began to mature. She can remember her first date, which was at the drive-in.

"Life was fun, innocent and I was sure it held magical moments in the future," Wharton said.

Then the Vietnam War came, which raged on through the ‘60s, and struck Wharton personally when her closest friend enlisted into the Army. His send-off party was at the drive-in. After he was sent off, trips to the drive-in dried up.

From top left, clockwise: The neon cowboy entices passersby to the Winchester Drive-In Movie Theater. Staff Photo by Steve Sisney; A family at Beacon Drive-In sit in lawn chairs; Customers enter the Beacon Drive-In in the back of a pickup. Staff Photos by Jim Argo; Bob Eufinger waves to cars at the Winchester Drive-In. Staff Photo by Sarah Phipps
From top left, clockwise: The neon cowboy entices passersby to the Winchester Drive-In Movie Theater. Staff Photo by Steve Sisney; A family at Beacon Drive-In sit in lawn chairs; Customers enter the Beacon Drive-In in the back of a pickup. Staff Photos by Jim Argo; Bob Eufinger waves to cars at the Winchester Drive-In. Staff Photo by Sarah Phipps

"Things were changing," Wharton explains. "Where had our optimism and happiness for today and tomorrow gone? We didn't know what the future held or if we would ever be together again."

The young lieutenant never came home. Drive-ins suddenly didn't seem important anymore. Finally, four decades passed before Wharton discovered her friend's remains had been found and were being shipped home.

"In the 40 years we waited on our friend to come home," Wharton said, "we saw our sons and daughters sent to war in Saudi Arabia. Oklahoma City was bombed, leaving a state forever changed. 9-11 took away any safe feelings we had ever felt. Our grandchildren are now fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan."

Gone are the simplicities of yesteryear.

"I long for the days when we didn't have to lock our doors and we weren't afraid to send our children running up to the playground," Wharton said. "Like the idea of a Camelot, we wish our children could know a world similar to the one we grew up in, but the world will never allow it. Our children are missing out on the memories of a lifetime."

THE FEELING "I can't predict the future, but I sure do feel good about it." - Jon Pickell, owner of the Tower in Poteau

There is a feeling that exists that is exclusive to drive-in owners.

It occurs at different moments for different owners, but it is still the same. None can seem to find a way to express it, although they are sure the right combination of words exists. Instead, they settle to describe the moment they feel it.

"If you ever come out on a weekend night, you'll realize there will always be a place for it," Jon Pickell said. "There's just something about a Friday night going out and walking around the crowd and seeing all the families that come up there having family time. To look out and see all that going on, that just does something to you."

The thrill of seeing a child's face light up at his first drive-in movie is precious.

"It just warms your heart to see them enjoy what you enjoy," Egbert said. "That's what makes it all worth it, to see all the little kids' faces with smiles on them. That touches your heart."

The thrill of hearing the cars honk in anticipation for the show to come on and delivering that first blast of light onto the screen is priceless.

"It's an unexplainable feeling," Shanbour said. "There's nothing like it, just nothing. I feel it inside myself all the time. It's hard to explain it to you, but it's there. I know it is. You get it in your blood and you can't get it out. I wouldn't give it up for nothing."

Every owner knows precisely what Shanbour is attempting to describe.

It is that feeling that leads these resilient owners to maintain their vessels in a storm of doubt. They are steered not by a paycheck, but by the satisfaction of delivering happiness to others.

"I'm just blessed to be out here, I really am," Shanbour said while peering out at the Winchester. "I don't know what else I can say about it. I can't put it in words. It's just a fun place to be, and the right place to be, as far as I'm concerned."

No amount of money can buy you the feeling and the view that Shanbour has.

Digital conversion has drive-ins at crossroads - Traditional 35mm film print is going by the wayside, in favor of a digital conversion for drive-in movie theaters. Some are optimistic it can breathe new life into drive-in theaters, but few are willing to write the six-figure check.

The days of 35mm film print are numbered.

The message from Hollywood to drive-in movie theater owners is clear: Get with the times or get left behind.

After studios declared they would no longer send their films in 35mm prints after 2013, a pricey conversion to digital projection began. The dilemma for drive-in owners is whether to shell out close to $100,000 for converting or stop receiving first-run movies, which all but promises their demise.

“It's either lock up or continue doing it,” said Marsh Powell, who owns the Beacon in Guthrie. “You have to go through a lot of soul searching.”

No one can deny the benefits. No longer are there bulky packages of 35mm film to send through the mail. Instead, studios are now distributing movies on a hard drive, which reduces shipping costs greatly. Not to mention the improvement in picture quality.

“It's like if you took a tube TV from the ‘80s and compared it to an LED TV from today,” said Amber Pickell, who helps run the newly converted Tower in Poteau. “Our customers absolutely love it.”

But what has owners the most enthralled are the possibilities now available to them with digital.

“Digital projectors offer exhibitors the ability to use their theater for mediums other than film,” said Sarah Noah, sales manager of Sonic Equipment Company, a leading provider for digital conversion based in Kansas. “You have to try to find as many advantages as possible because of all the money they're putting into it. Now, they're not just limited to studio content anymore.”

Translation: drive-ins have the potential of airing concerts or sporting events, such as Oklahoma football, Oklahoma City Thunder basketball and Monday night football games. While owners cannot charge admission, they are sure to make a profit from concessions alone.

From left, clockwise: Jon Onyshczak works in the projection booth at the Winchester Drive-In. Staff Photo by Nate Billings. Beacon Drive-in movie theater owner Marsh Powell prepares the film for Friday’s show; The projector at Beacon Drive-in Movie Theater. Staff Photos by Emily Schwarze
From left, clockwise: Jon Onyshczak works in the projection booth at the Winchester Drive-In. Staff Photo by Nate Billings. Beacon Drive-in movie theater owner Marsh Powell prepares the film for Friday’s show; The projector at Beacon Drive-in Movie Theater. Staff Photos by Emily Schwarze.

“It's like going down to a bar and watching the game,” said Jon Pickell, owner of the Tower. “It just so happens my TV is a little bit bigger.”

Many are hesitant to make the switch due to the six-figure cost. At the end of 2011, the United Drive-in Theater Owner Association reported 366 remaining theaters. That number has been in steady decline the last decade.

Of the six drive-ins still open in Oklahoma, all plan on making the conversion. Three already have: the Beacon, the Tower and the Corral in Guymon.

“But when you think about it, by the time we get the loan paid off, the equipment will be out of date,” Amber Pickell said. “And then, we'll have to turn around and do this all over again.”

Help might be on the way from the studios. Discussions are ongoing about amending the Digital Cinema Initiative, which prevents drive-in owners from cashing in on a Virtual Print Fee, a compensation from the studios sent to theaters for playing their movies. A settlement is expected by the end of the year.

Drive-ins are considered non-compliant with the DCI's requirements, which call for a sound quality and screen brightness impossible for outdoor theaters to meet. That's stopping owners from cashing in.

Some are adamant the switch to digital will breathe new life into drive-ins, a jolt not felt since their peak in the ‘50s.

Others see it as a demise, as finding owners to write six-figure checks to keep drive-ins alive will soon become a rarity.

“I don't think it has to be a good thing or a bad thing,” said D. Edward Vogel, the administrative secretary of the UDTOA. “This is what's going to happen, so the day of whether this is good or bad is gone. We just have to embrace it now.”

Drive-in Memories Memories shared with The Oklahoman about past experiences at drive-in movie theaters.

Mom and dad would load us into our old Chevy on a Saturday night and take all four of us to the drive-in movies. We popped popcorn, buttered it heavily and put it in a big, brown paper bag. Our drinks were a big jug of grape Kool-Aid. We were all happy little campers, but most of all, we were making family memories. My dad and brother are gone now and my mom is 91 years old. I am certain if I started talking about those times at the drive-in movies, I would get a big grin and a funny story from mom.
— Sherri Compton, 62, El Reno

During the summer of 1969, after I graduated from high school, I got a job working at the Twilight Gardens as the cashier at the gate and then in the concession stand. One of the best things that came from that was I met my husband, Jim, there. He worked during the day doing clean-up and handyman work. After we were married, we moved away from Oklahoma City but came back every year to visit family. Sometimes we would just sit in his parents' backyard and watch the movie without sound because his parents live right across the street from Twilight Gardens. When we heard it was going to close, we went to a movie for old times' sake. We have many fond memories of it.
— Cindy Wheeler, 60, Jacksonville, N.C.

My husband and I went on our first date in 1949 to the Tower Drive-in in Ada to see the classic movie “Red River” starring John Wayne. We will celebrate our 62nd wedding anniversary this year and we have made Ada our home for all of these years. What a great place to live and raise a family. We have so many great memories!
— Doris Blackburn, 83, Ada

I remember the first time going to the Skyview Drive-in movie theater and for the life of me I can't remember what we saw, but it was magic being there. Mom, my sister and I spent many evenings eating homemade popcorn, drinking dime sodas and trying to stay awake during the feature film while people-watching. Those were lasting memories that are now a lost part of our culture. The Skyview closed in the early ‘70s and now the sign at the entrance has disappeared. All that's left are the memories of seniors like me who have occasion to think back.
— Gene Johnson, 69, Edmond

I remember going to the final night that 14 Flags on South Western was open. The movies were: ‘Stripes,' ‘Private Benjamin,' ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show,' and ‘Tron.' It was an all-night event! I recall people yelling back at the movie during Rocky Horror. I cannot believe we went straight from the drive-in to the early service at church! Now that housing addition is called Western Flags, I believe, where the 14 Flags Drive-in once lived. I say lived because the drive-in was so much more than just a place!
— Shawn Slattery, 42, Mustang

My most vivid drive-in movie memory was ‘Bonnie and Clyde.' I was a child, maybe 11 or 12. My mother had no idea the movie would have so much violence. I had never seen anything close to that kind of blood in a movie. As I look back, it really was a lot for the time. It was not a proud moment for my mother, but she proceeded to exceed it with a movie called ‘The Grasshopper,' which she thought, by the title, was a kids movie. Turns out, it had something to do with a promiscuous woman who hopped from man to man. Boy, was she ever embarrassed.
— Rebekah Good, 51, Oklahoma City

My mom took me to see ‘Aliens' at a drive-in when I was pretty young. It was absolutely terrifying! We got out and watched it on the hood of the car. I was so scared to get down off of the hood because I thought there was an alien under our car! It is one of the most vivid memories of my youth.
— Kelli Matthews, 31, Norman

One of my greatest childhood memories is watching ‘ET: The Extra-Terrestrial' at the drive-in of my hometown of Clinton in the back seat of my parents' pea-green station wagon. I was 7 years old at the time and remember wanting my ‘Flying O' bike from Otasco to fly.
— Derek Villanueva, 36, Oklahoma City

We moved to Oklahoma City in 1972 and my drive-in memories are of the Cinema 70 Drive-in theater between Meridian and MacArthur on the Northwest Expressway. We purchased a home that backed up to the drive-in and ours was the last house that could actually see the screen. We learned that when the housing addition was built, the theater offered sound to every house on the street. So we bought a speaker and wire and hooked it up and watched many movies from our backyard.
— Jacque Long, 64, Oklahoma City

My dad used to take us to the drive-in in Oklahoma City. When we got to the parking area, there was always the maneuvering to get the car just right on the humps, car nosed to the sky so everyone could see. But my sister and I would always find our way to the front fenders of our old Buick, Betsy, and that was where we watched the movie, curled up on the hood of the car and feeling the warmth from the engine. Once parked and situated, my favorite place was not the concession stand, but the ponies. There were pony rides out behind the movie screen and I would immediately seek them out. Daddy always knew where to find me. He practically had to pry me out of there once the movie started. We never had to worry about anyone bothering us. We were safe there. My favorite place once the movie started was standing tucked behind Daddy's shoulder, my arm wrapped around his neck. Usually my favorite place to sleep was on the floor, curled up behind Daddy's seat with the drive shaft hump as my pillow rest. Aah! Memory lane and moments at the drive-in, wasn't that a wonderful world back then?
— Linda Stanley, 64, Canon City, Colo.

Drive-In Movie Ads : Drive in Intermission 1960's
81 drive-in, skyview drive-in, sign for drive-in show

As a teenager, I spent the mid-‘50s working at the Chief Drive-in in Chickasha and I have more memories than time to write them. It was the place to be. They all came to the Chief. I was the general all-around flunkie known as the manager. I was responsible for getting there to open up, maintain the marquee and help the concession stand. That old marquee is still there when you drive by Highway 81 and it appears that the letters are the ones I used over 50 years ago. If you want to spend an evening in retro-land, visit the Chief this summer.
— Leo Kuschnereit, 72, Midwest City

I can remember my family going to the Twilight Gardens drive-in theater here in Oklahoma City as a child. In front of the screen were swing sets to play on, and they also had a little train that would take you for a ride around the play area before the movie and at intermission. We had loads of fun and a lot of very precious memories from those days.
— Carolyn Brown, 68, McLoud

I just love drive-in movies! It is a great family-friendly event, and we've introduced many friends to it as well. The funny thing is that you get to know some of the regular drive-in fans. Last season my kids made a new friend at the drive-in and this year, on our first time back for the summer, they saw her again and reconnected like old friends.
— Lisa McConnell, 34, Kingfisher

One of my favorite memories of my childhood is going to drive-in movies with my family. Our favorite drive-in was Twilight Gardens in Oklahoma City. We would arrive early before the movie so we could enjoy the play area. My brothers and I usually could not stay awake for the second feature. My parents put blankets and pillows in the back of our station wagon so we could crawl back there and sleep while they watched the movie.
— Michele Hawkins, 58, Oklahoma City

I have many wonderful memories of going to the drive-in theaters with my dad, mom and younger brother. What wonderful times and wonderful movies they made back then. We didn't have to worry about ratings because there were no ratings. Movies were patriotic, sentimental and had wonderful storylines that could be enjoyed by the whole family. We really lived in the ‘Happy Days!' I am so glad that I have all these special memories.
— Janice Baker, 73, Moore

The Thompson drive-in in Atoka was a very memorable place for our family. Family night for one-dollar-a-car was a popular thing to do. My mom would pop us some popcorn and throw a couple blankets in the vehicle. We would spread them in the back of the truck or on the hood of the car.
— Arlene Smith, 48, Tushka

I lived in Altus in 1964 and 1965 and I remember on Wednesday nights, it was a-dollar-a-car night, so we would load up the kids and go to the movies with our leftover cold fried okra and cold meat loaf sandwiches and take pillows and quilts. Back then you didn't have to worry whether the kids should see it or not. It was just a good family time.
— June Wright, Elk City

I remember as a child going to the Skyview Drive-in theater in the ‘60s in our big brown and white station wagon. I had seven brothers and two sisters and the nine of us were crowded in that station wagon watching the movies on the hood or on top of the car. The fun never stopped, and before that drive-in closed I had a chance to take my children to it. Thanks for bringing back a memory of times shared with family.
— Dee Jefferson, Moore

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