Tucson Drive-In Theaters

From the Arizona Daily Star

Cactus Drive-In - 1975
Cactus Drive-In - 1975

It began after war. Giant screens rising like monoliths above the dust of 10,000 automobile tires.

And all of it worth at least a million a night.

That's what Hugh Downs figured. Now if only he could get his hands on his own drive-in picture show. The year was 1949. Tucson, jarred to life during World War II, was fast shaking its old Pueblo ways.

Why, already there were three drive-in movie shows open or about to open in town; the Midway, the Biltmore Motor Vu. and the brand-new Rodeo.

Pop the corn, pack up the kids, pile in the car. Leave the curlers in your hair. Who cares? Let's go.

And go they did,

Says Downs: "Me and Becker (Wesley Becker, next-door neighbor and soon-to-be business partner) went down to the Rodeo and counted the cars. We multiplied that by four persons in each car. Then we went to the snack bar. When we saw them lined up, we figured they had to be making a million dollars a night.'

The new partners borrowed $15,000 and plunked it down on 10 acres of "brush, greasewood and rattlesnakes" at the corner of 22nd Street and Alvernon Way,

Five months later, March 13, the Cactus Drive-In opened for business. "We built it mainly with workers from Davis-Monthan," says Downs. "They'd come in after their shifts at the base and work till 10 or 11 at night."

"Arizona" was their first movie. Sixty cents admission, free to kids. It came on a double bill, along with cartoons, world news, previews and intermission. Cokes were a dime 15 cents for popcorn.

Editors Note: The correct opening date for the Cactus Drive-In was actually March 24, 1951, not 1949 as the article states. Also, the movies were "The Gal Who Took the West" and "Feudin', Fussin' and Fighting". See the Grand Opening Advertisement.

They never made a million a night. But they made enough. Enough to eventually own every drive-in theater in town, except for the Biltmore. They ended up owning the Cactus, the Fiesta, the Prince, the Midway, Rodeo, 22nd Street, and the Apache.

Ewart Edwards remembers the good times. Already in the business for more than a decade, he started working for Downs in 1962, managing the Midway and the 22nd Street.

John Wayne, Annette Funicello, Godzilla arid James Bond drew them in. "I'll never forget "Goldfinger," says Edwards. "It was raining, a cold December. I thought, "Nobody will be there."

"When I got to Speedway and Swan, I thought there had been an accident. But it was cars backed up, waiting to get into the show." The windshield wipers stayed on all through the show, says Edwards "Afterward, we had to call someone to give battery boosts to something like 35 cars."

Nobody was ever born at the drive-ins, say Edwards aid Downs, but a few came close. "I did have to make emergency calls for women going into labor," says Edwards.

Downs remembers the night a woman ran to the snack bar, crying that her baby was choking. "1 rushed back to the car and got whatever was choking it out of its mouth."

He also remembers the June night in 1953 when the original Rodeo screen burned down - neon cowgirl and all - just before the gunfight in "Ride the Man Down."

"People thought it was a fire in the movie. They were saying, Gee that sure looks realistic."

Fire trucks were also called the night a University of Arizona student climbed to the top of the 22nd Street's screen. "He was waving his arms down in front of the screen," Edwards remembers. "But when we hollered at him to come down, he froze. We had to get the fire department to come get him."

The show always went on - with two exceptions: Once when the Cactus screen blew down during a thunderstorm, the other during a snowstorm. "We gave snow checks," says Downs.

Both laugh at the drive-ins' reputation as "passion pits."

"Our policy was as long as they stayed in the car and didn't bother anybody it was all right," says Edwards. "But if someone complained. we had to interrupt."

"Anything that went on beneath the windows was OK." adds Downs.

Hiding in the trunk to avoid paying admission was another matter. "Trunkers" that's what we called 'em, says Downs. "We'd sit across the street and watch them stop just down the road and get in - usually the girls, because they were smaller and could curl up."

Apprehension was swift. "We'd walk up to the car and just stand there until the people in the trunk started hollering to get out," says Downs. "Of course, the driver would act like he couldn't hear a thing."

One-person cars were also suspect. "We'd always write down the license number," says Edwards, "Then go around and check. You should have heard the stories about how all those people suddenly got in their car."

The punishment: Pay up or get out.

On "dollar-a-car" nights, says Downs, "they'd pack 'em in 15-20 in a car."

Rock 'n' roll bands, Fourth of July watermelon busts, car and airplane displays, even gunfights - all were used to draw the crowds. "We were playing a western at the Midway," remembers Edwards, "so I had these gunfighters from Old Tucson down in front of the screen, staging a shoot-out. Well, the pigeons loved to roost in that old screen. When those guns went off, we must have had 200 of 'em taking off."

It was not enough. Indoor movies discovered the small, multiple screen concept. "In 1966 Tucson had four indoor screens, By 1976 there were 18," says Edwards. Adding to the competition was another drive-in, known as the Tucson Four, which brought multiple outdoor screens to town in 1974.

One by one, the old outdoor one-screens started shutting down:

The Fiesta, Sept.20, 1966
The Cactus, Oct.27, 1976.
The Midway, Dec. 1, 1976.
The Prince, Dec. 8, 1976.
The Biltmore-Miracle Mile, Sept. 6, 1978.
The 22nd Street, Sept.12, 1979.
The Rodeo, Jan.28, 1981.
The Apache (3 screens) Sept. 1994

The Cactus reopened in 1977 as the DeAnza, now a multi-screen operation hearing the name of the corporation that owns it.

Edwards was DeAnza's area general manager. He retired in 1999. Downs and Becker are no longer in the movie business.