2016-12-15 / Columnists

All-Weather Drive-In Theater: Open All Year, Day and Night, Rain or Shine

by Sandi Brewster-walker

The old Amityville Movie Theater located at 217 Broadway in the Village of Amityville had about 734, seats. It opened around 1914 before the United States involvement in the Great War (World War I), and remained open through World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam Conflict.

It was a traditional movie theater, where you would pay a small fee and stay all day through the newsreels, clips of upcoming movies, the feature film and cartoons. It was a movie house, and not a family amusement facility created for young veteran families, and the baby boomer generation of the 1950s!

According to the Long Islander (Huntington) newspaper on Jan. 23, 1947, the US Civilian Production Administration had “banned the construction of swimming pools, boardwalks, roller-coasters, drive-in theaters, parking lots, concrete tennis courts, walls and fences of wood, brick or concrete when any of these projects costs more than $200.” Harry Truman (33rd US president, 1945-1953) had created the Civilian Production Administration, and terminated the War Production Board on Oct. 4, 1945 by Executive Order 9638. This action was mainly because of the housing boom and the shortage of construction materials, but by the 1950s things were changing, and the early baby boomers were entering their teenage years!

If you lived on Long Island on April 20, 1957, you can’t help but remember when the Johnny All Weather Drive-In Theatre opened to the general public at 1001 Sunrise Highway (Route 27), Copiague (NY). This family amusement facility was built by Prudential Theatres (name changes and reorganization to Associated Prudential Theater, Inc. and Prudential Management), finally operated later by United Artist Theatres. Prudential would operate and manage approximately 15 movie theaters, and eight drive-in theaters on the Island.

The new all-weather drive-in was developed on approximately 28 acres. The parking lot could accommodate 2,500 cars outside with one large screen, and indoors 1,200 attendees also with one large screen. The indoor theatre included air-conditioning, which was a big deal “back in the day”

Cars would pull into a parking spot and the driver would reach out to get the speaker that hung on a cement pole. The “high-technology” speaker, developed by RCA in 1941 with its one sound control, would be placed on the driver-side window before it was rolled up.

The All-Weather Drive-In facility experience included an outdoor roof-top viewing area, full-service cafeteria (not restaurant), outdoor concession stand, playground and a trolley train named Tally-Ho that would take you from the front gate to the indoor theater.

By the summer of 1957, local teenagers soon discovered you could hide in a car trunk, under a blanket on the backseat floor or jump the low wood fence to attend the movie for free! The drive-in became a high-priority hangout for the local preteens and teenagers to be seen, as well as meet up in late 1957 thru the early 1960s. It was not about the movie! It was about what you wore to the movies and who saw you there!

According to Landon Jones, author of “Great Expectations: America and the Baby Boom Generation,” the boomers extended from 1943 through 1960, when annual births increased in the United States to over 4 million babies.

The original All-Weather movie theatre attendees were these baby boomers, as well as young couples that would bring their children in the back of their station wagons dressed in pajamas with pillows and blankets. This was the original “date night” for young parents.

William Strauss and Neil Howe’s generational theory also define baby boomers as those “…who were too young to have any personal memory of World War II, but old enough to remember the postwar American high.”

The first movie to play at the All-Weather, “Heaven Knows Mr. Allison” starring Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr, was about “a marine and a nun forming an unlikely friendship. The marine is shipwrecked on a Pacific island and the nun has been left behind there; they find comfort in one another as the two wait out the war.”

The drive-in was constructed on the south side of Sunrise Highway just across from the Hamlet of North Amityville and Copiague’s Benjamin Banneker Community Center. Later, the Bowling Alley and Roll N’ Ice Skating Rink were built next to the Community Center across from the theater. This section of Sunrise Highway became the entertainment hub for teenagers and young adults.

Drive-ins were not new. In 1921, a drive-in was opened by Claude Caver in Comanche (TX). It is said the owner projected the screening of silent films for cars parked “bumper to bumper.” But it was not until Richard Hollingshead, Jr. applied for a patent on Aug. 6, 1932 that drive-in theaters were officially launched.

Hollingshead conducted outdoor theater tests at 212 Thomas Avenue in Riverton (NJ). “After nailing a screen to trees in his backyard, he set 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. Blocks under vehicles in the driveway enabled him to determine the size and spacing of ramps, so all automobiles could have a clear view of the screen.” He officially opened his drive-in on June 6, 1933. Hollingshead’s drive-in had speakers installed on a tower near the screen, which caused a sound delay affecting patrons at the rear of the drive-in.

Research found that on April 15, 1934, the Shankweiler’s Auto Park opened in Orefield (PA) soon followed by the Galveston’s Drive-In Short Reel Theatre on July 5, 1934. The same year, the Pico Drive- In Theatre opened in Los Angeles (CA) on Sept. 9, with a row of speakers in front of the cars. On the East Coast, the Weymouth (MA) Drive-In Theatre opened on May 6, 1936. Locally on the Island during the post-World War II and Korean War years, many of the townships were scheduling votes on drive-in theaters.

Announced in the Patchogue Advance on Dec. 1, 1949 that plans were submitted to the Town of Islip for a $100,000 drive-in-theater in Bay Shore by Samuel Kaufman and John Schultz of Garden City. They wanted a variance “to permit the construction of an eight-foot fence on Fifth Avenue” to surround the theater.

In Huntington, there was opposition to a proposed drive-in theater on the grounds that “it would give rise to a moral problem,” according to a report in the Jan. 12, 1950 issue of the Patchogue Advance.

The same year the County Review reported on April 27, the “Smithtown Board voted unanimously against a proposed change in zoning that would have allowed the establishment of a new, $150,000 drive-in theater at the corner of Jericho Turnpike and Indian Head Road, Commack”.

By June 4, 1954, drive-in theaters were becoming more acceptable on the Island, “Members of both the Oakdale and Bohemia Civic Clubs and the Idle Hour Taxpayers Association favor a proposed drive-in theater to be constructed on the southwest corner of Locust Avenue and the new Sunrise Extension…” However, on Aug. 27, the Suffolk County News continued reporting, on the status of the drive-in telling its readers that the Town of Islip citing “safety factors” denied the application for the theatre.

The following year on March 10, the Long Islander (Huntington) reported that a hearing had been scheduled regarding a new Melville drive-in, “the 42-acre Melville tract for which the Century Theatre Circuit was refused a building ordinance amendment which would have designated the area as an ‘Outdoor Amusement District’ will be the subject of another hearing”.

After the early success of the Johnny All-Weather Drive-In Theatre in 1961, Associated Prudential Theaters, Inc. opened the second-largest theater on the Island, the Smithtown All-Weather Drive-In on Middle Island Road, Nesconset (NY). It also had capacity for 2,500 cars.

By the 1970s, drive-in theaters were beginning to close for a number of reasons including revenue, reputations and teenagers were meeting at the theatres to fight rather than just be seen. Families were beginning to stay home with their color television, VCRs and video rentals. Some of the problems had actually started in the late 1960s!

One example was a robbery that took place, reported in the Patchogue Advance on July 21, 1966, “A safe weighing about 300 lbs. was carried away in the early hours of Monday morning from the Sunrise Highway Drive-In Theater in Patchogue”.

The Long Islander (Huntington) newspaper issue on Dec. 11, 1980 in discussing the fate of the drive-in in Melville actually described what was happening to other drive-in theaters. “For three years, the former site of the Century 110 Drive-In in Melville has looked like a ghost town. A bustling, open-air drive-in theater from 1956 to 1976, then a flea market for two years after that the property, located south of the Long Island Expressway, west of Route 110, and zoned for light industry, has been vacant since”.

Finally, Johnny All-Weather theatre had its last season and closed their door in Copiague, Town of Babylon in 1984! This was followed the next year by the closing of the Smithtown All-Weather Drive-In Theater in 1985.

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