Drive-In Memories

Drive-Ins are as much about social life as they are about movies. All of us have memories of people and things that happened at the drive-in as well as movies that stand out for one reason or another.

I will attempt to put this in chronological order but bear with me if I wander occasionally.

My earliest memories of the drive-in take place in the early '50's, probably 1953 - 1954. This was an era that predated our first black and white television set and family entertainment meant my dad, mom and I attending the Safford Drive-in. The Safford Drive-In was owned by Mr. Long.

Safford is an agricultural community in eastern Arizona, about 45 miles north of my hometown of Morenci. I remember sitting in the back seat and listening to "Fibber McGee and Molly" on the radio before the movies started. I also remember that they had contests like license plate number drawings and ticket stub drawings for things like dishes.

The Safford Drive-In is gone now. The screen tower blew down in a windstorm in the late '70's and they did not rebuild. I went by shortly after it happened and someone had placed a hand-made sign near the old box office that said, "Gone With the Wind!".

Interestingly enough, I recently came in contact with Mr. Long's granddaughter via the internet and got two original Reed speakers from her from the old Safford Drive-in. They are stamped "Long's Theaters" and could very well have been used in the theater when I was a youngster!

Sometime in the early '50's, a fellow from Texas decided to build a drive-in closer to Morenci. He chose the intersection about 9 miles north of Clifton-Morenci where highway 66 North branches to go either to Clifton, Duncan or Safford Arizona. The drive-in was called "The 3-Way Drive-In".

The drive-in screen was constructed by placing telephone poles in a large rectangle about 60 feet by 20 feet. The screen was then built upon this frame as a 3 story house with windows on the outside and a screen on the inside. The man and his family lived on the property and this was probably as practical as it could get. I have heard of a few other drive-ins being built this way in other parts of the country. I only wish my folks had taken pictures of the construction! I remember seeing it several times during the construction phase.

I remember going to this drive-in many times with my family. By now our family had grown to five, my dad, mom, sister Eva, sister Yvonne, and myself. I often slept on the 9 mile ride back down the mountain to our house.

I also remember going with just my dad a few times. I think it was his idea of father and son bonding. His taste in movies ran towards westerns, pirate movies and car race movies. One particular movie that stands out that I saw with him was "West to Zanzibar".

The 3-Way Drive-In is also gone but here are some images of it taken around 2008.

Oddly enough, I never attended either drive-in alone as a teenager. It was always with my family.

The first drive-in that I attended without my family was the Fiesta Drive-in Tucson Arizona around 1964. I was 18 years old and a freshman in college. Several college friends wanted to go see a "sexy" Italian film that was playing. It was a rainy evening and the movie was a black and white epic. What stands out in my mind about this event was that one of the fellows, Bill, was 21 and had bought a six-pack of beer. Now this is the dark ages, before pull tabs, (remember them?) or pop tops. What he forgot was the can opener or "church-key". I can still visualize him sitting on the ground next to the car and trying to open that can with the car key and a rock!

The Fiesta is long gone now. It was torn down in 1966 to make room for the new I-10 highway which cut right through the screen area.

My next memories of the drive-ins was a year or so later. I was working part time at a local tv repair shop to help finance my education. The owner looked upon me as a son and graciously allowed me to use one of the 1963 Ford Econoline service trucks for Saturday night dates!

I had a college girlfriend, Doris, who was a tall (6' 1") California surfer type. She loved James Bond Movies and I think we saw all of them as they debuted at the Midway Drive-in on Speedway. When my co-workers found that I was going to use the van to go to the drive-in, they always fixed up the furniture pads like a bed. It was actually embarrassing at first.

In June of 1968, shortly before my 22nd birthday, I decided that borrowing cars from friends or using the company van for a date at the drive-in was just too tacky. After a lot of shopping around, I finally settled on a black, 1964 Jaguar XK-E Roadster!

Might as well start at the top, I guess.

My social life and attendance at the local drive-ins improved tremendously at that point. I think I must have gone at least once a week for a while.

The next summer, I also acquired a new Honda 750 motorcycle shortly after they were introduced in July of 1969. Now I wasn't rich by any means, but I was working and internal combustion and dating was my whole life at that time.

One weekend, several other biker friends and I took our dates to the Cactus Drive-in which was showing some of the infamous low budget "biker" movies from American International. The box office folks looked a little worried when a dozen bikers showed up but they took our money and let us attend. We arranged the bikes around a couple of speaker poles and put blankets on the ground to sit on. It was great fun but I couldn't even begin to recall the name of the movie. All of the AI biker movies seemed to have interchangeable plots anyway.

I also remember attending a Clint Eastwood Spaghetti Western marathon at the Prince Drive-In sometime around this era. They were showing "Hang em High", "A Fistfull of Dollars", and "For a Few Dollars More".

Another time, I attended a dusk to dawn horror marathon at the Apache Drive-In. I went alone in my XK-E and recall that it was really more of a large block party than a movie. People were wandering all over the lot socializing and I don't think anyone really cared what was showing on the screen. It was a civilized crowd and there were no problems. I wonder if it would be the same if someone held that kind of event today.

The early 1970's were very good for drive-ins in Tucson. At that point in time, we had the Midway, Rodeo, Prince, Apache, Miracle Mile, and the 22nd Street Drive-In operating at the same time. There were nearly twice as many drive-in screens as there were hardtops.

I couldn't begin to list the movies I've seen at the drive-in but a few stand out for one reason or another. "Tunnelvision" at the Prince, a satire of cable TV long before Tucson ever had cable TV. "Support Your Local Sheriff" and "Support Your Local Gunfighter" as a double feature at the Cactus. I was laying on the bonnet of the XK-E and fell asleep during the first feature! I finally saw them all the way through later on cable. "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" at the Cactus. I can still see the crystal ship rising and the credits rolling in my mind. "The China Syndrome" at the Apache.

In late 1973, Syufy Entertainment from San Francisco begin building a new drive-in that would be both the most exciting drive-in ever built in Tucson as well as sounding a death knell for many of the older theaters.

The Tucson 4, our first multi-screen drive-in, opened in January of 1974 and had a really neat round snack bar. It also had video games and you had to pass through the snack bar to get to the rest rooms, increasing concession sales! It was soon the preferred place to go see movies by many Tucsonans.

The Tucson 4 was also the only Tucson drive-in that featured electric car heaters. They were made by Koropp and you would set it in the car to keep warm during the chilly winter months.

A note about the weather here: Tucson is in the Sonora Desert and summers tend to be very hot. Often times the daytime temperatures in July are over 110 degrees. However, the winter nights can get chilly, even down to freezing occasionally, so the car heaters definitely made going to the drive-in more pleasant in the winter. All of the local drive-ins stayed open 12 months out of the year.

Some of the other theaters hung on for a while, then slowly closed. By 1977, many of the single screens were closed or closing. Around 1978, Syufy added a 5th screen to the Tucson 4, making it the Tucson 5.

The DeAnza Corporation remodeled both the Apache and Cactus into triple screen drive-ins. Later on, they even added one more screen to the Cactus (now called the DeAnza) to make it a four screen.

Another series of events that would seriously impact the drive-in business in Tucson would be the VCR and cable TV. I bought my first VCR in 1977. It was an RCA VHS model for nearly $1,500. There was very little movie product to buy or rent, so it would be a few more years before it became a serious threat to the drive-ins.

Tucson also did not have cable TV at this time. However, a local company installed a single channel microwave station and started delivering Home Box Office in late 1977. HBO was only on the air from 10 AM to about midnight, so again, it was not yet a major threat to the drive-ins.

Then in 1982, Syufy tore down the Tucson 5 and put up a 12 screen hardtop. This left only the 4 screen DeAnza and the 3 screen Apache as operating drive-ins in a city that had once boasted having 10 separate drive-ins!

Cable TV finally came to Tucson in 1982 when Cox Cable won the franchise to wire the city. With the advent of 60 channels, cable began to make a serious impact on drive-ins as well as hardtops.

Business fell off and around 1991, one of the screens at the Apache was torn down. The Apache continued to run during the summer season for a few more years then closed for good in 1994. This left Tucson with only one drive-in, The DeAnza 4 screen.

As I write this (Sept 2001), the DeAnza is still operating. However, it has been for sale since at least October of 1998. A drive-in owner from Denver attempted to buy it but the financing fell through at the last moment. I have heard that it will continue to operate, but unless someone can afford to buy it and run it as a theater, Tucsons long and fascinating love affair with outdoor movies may be drawing to an end. Business is still good at the DeAnza, at least on weekends and they show the same first run films as the hardtops.

Tucson hosted it's first drive-in in 1940 when the RCA Corporation built one at South 6th Avenue and the Benson Highway. It was an unusual theater in that it did not have individual car speakers. Instead, there were large concrete boxes in the ground underneath the parking spaces that contained large speakers. The sounds of Hollywood's finest films were blasted through the floorboard of the cars.

This drive-in fell victim to World War II tire and gasoline rationing and closed in early 1942. There is now an older shopping center in that location.

If anyone has experiences to share of their visits to Tucson drive-ins, I would like to hear about them and would be happy to include them here if possible. Write to George. I also collect drive-in memorabilia so if you have an old Tucson drive-in speaker that somehow followed you home, stuck away in your garage somewhere, I would be interested in buying it or at least photographing it.

My wife and I attend the DeAnza nearly every weekend. If you haven't been to a drive-in lately, find one nearby and support them with your attendance. It's a unique movie experience that you may never have again.

Sadly, the DeAnza was sold and closed on October 3, 2009. In April 2010 they tore it down because the property had become a haven for crime. The large screen was dismantled and is carefully stored, awaiting rebirth as the New Cactus Drive-in. Ironically as of this date, June 2014, I am now the president of the Cactus Drive In Theatre Foundation Inc. We hope to some day soon, bring back the drive in to Tucson Arizona. .

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Last Updated June 27, 2014 GWC