Tucson Driv-In Theater

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The truth about our first drive-in movie

From the Arizona Daily Star

Sunday, January 27 1991

Tucson Driv-In

A photo of the Tucson Driv-In taken during construction. The large round concrete holes were for speakers! This was one of the early drive-ins that blasted the sound through the floor board of the car, long before the invention of the window speaker.

Paddle wheels once trolled the Santa Cruz, Pancho Villa had a suite at the Pioneer, and the Midway was the first drive-in movie theater in Tucson.

Lies, lies, nothing but lies.

Well, OK, "misstatements" then. Which brings us to the task at hand, that of putting to rest yet another falsehood concerning that font of culture and occasional heavy breathing known as the outdoor picture show.

For the record, Tucson's first drive-in movie theater opened at 6:15 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 25, 1940 - a full eight years before pigeons ever roosted atop the Midway's screen.

"Golden Boy," starring William Holden, Barbara Stanwyck and Adolphe Menjou, was the first movie on the bill, along with "A Bride for Henry."

Three dimes got you in the gate, one dime for kids under 12. Of course, that did not include, ahem, those who watched for free.

"We never had enough money to go in there, so we'd sit outside the fence and watch it from our car," says longtime Tucsonan Jim Lochner, then a high school student. "If you had the windows down, you could hear the speakers."

The drive-in sprawled across 11 acres of what would one day become Southgate Shopping Center. Its nearest neighbors along South Sixth Avenue included the Pima County and Veterans' hospitals, along with a couple of tourist courts.

"It took up that whole corner between 44th Street and what's now the freeway," says Lochner. "But the freeway did not go down there then. All we had was the Benson Highway, which dead-ended at South Sixth Avenue."

Tucson Driv-In Theatre was the rather generic name of this southside picture show, built by Radio Corporation of America.

"The plant is laid out to form a semi-circular amphitheatre, with cars parking in single lines on ramps," reads a newspaper article that ran the day before the drive-in's debut.

Its 66-foot-high screen, the article goes on to say, "was placed in a position selected to minimize interference from the moon."

Continuing along this vein of extremely thorough reporting, the article also mentions that the housing for the screen "contains enough wood and plaster to construct six bungalows."

Perhaps the most novel feature of the drive-in, however, was its "system of 250 concrete speakers through which sound is piped to each parking space."

Concrete speakers attached to your car window? Don't be silly. These speakers were set in the ground, allowing the pear-shaped tones of Hollywood's finest to drift up through the floorboards.

"We drove right over the speakers," says Rosalie Callahan Dayton, one of a carload of girls who regularly motored out to Tucson's first drive-in "every time the show changed."

Back when Tinsel Town really knew how to grind them out, that would have been just about every two or three days.

Just two days after its grand opening, the drive-in was already advertising a new weekend double bill: "Good Girls Go to Paris," featuring Melvyn Douglas and Joan Blondell, and "Across the Plains," starring Jack Randall and Rusty, the Wonder Horse.

Hopalong Cassidy and Gene Autry were also big draws, reports Dayton. "They had western series they'd run, just like when I was a member of the Mickey Mouse Club." (A Saturday morning kids' show that ran at the Fox-Tucson).

Wholesome entertainment this - more than a decade removed from the lurid "Reform School Girl" type of movies that would flicker on many an outdoor screen of the '50s.

"Good Lord, we would have all been shocked," says Dayton. "Back then, nobody even mentioned the word `brassiere."'

As for popcorn and other snacks, says Dayton, everyone brought their own. "I don't remember any snack bar there."

Walk-ins were also welcome. "They had a row of seats down front for people to sit," remembers Armando Membrila, a frequent patron.

By and large, however, the drive-in was designed for the customers in cars, taking pains to welcome "such persons ordinarily unable to patronize standard theaters since they may attend in pajamas and dressing robes."

This picture show, the article goes on to say, "also will solve the amusement problems of mothers with babies or small children."

Every eventuality, it would appear, had been anticipated, with management promising that the "show will go on under any conditions except a blizzard or pea soup fog."

Or war.

On Christmas night 1941, 18 days past the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Tucson Driv-In was still putting on a brave front.

Reads that day's movie ad: "Hurry up! Tonight's the last night for `You Belong to Me,' with Stanwyck and Fonda. The second feature, `The Gay Vagabond.' Tomorrow we'll have `Little Men' and Gene Autry in `The Singing Hill."'

But even the singing cowboy couldn't save Tucson's first drive-in from the reality of a wartime halt in new car and tire production, to say nothing of gas rationing.

On Feb. 27, 1942, the drive-in was still carrying its Christmas Day double bill - though the tenor of its ads was beginning to show some testiness behind all that folksiness:

"Come on out - I need some more attendance and don't ask for any passes right now, we're fresh out." Signed, "Barney."

And that, it would appear, was that. If movies continued to grind on into the spring of '42 at the Tucson Driv-In Theatre, they did so bereft of newspaper advertising.

Exactly when the wood and plaster screen - enough for six bungalows, remember - came crashing down is somewhat hazy as well.

Says Dayton: "All I remember is, I drove by there one day, and it was gone."

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Last Updated Jan 17, 1999 GWC