During the heyday of drive-in movie theaters in the 1950s and 60s, there were about 4,000 of them in the United States.
Current numbers have dwindled to less than a tenth of that peak total, and there are now only 12 functional drive-ins left in Missouri. One of the dozen remaining is in Texas County: Houston’s Phoenix Theater on Highway B just east of town.
The theater opened in May of 1951 and was at the time called the Sunset Drive-In. Having changed hands several times over the years, it was purchased in February of 2010 by current owner Samantha Thomas, of Salem. The business is truly a family affair, as duties of operating the drive-in and its accompanying indoor theater are shared by Samantha, her parents Richard and Hillary Thomas (of Licking) and sister Noel (who lives between Licking and Houston). On a typical Saturday night, a Thomas can be found in all positions at the complex, manning concessions stands, taking tickets, or tending to whatever else needs attention.
A retired National Guard colonel, Richard acts as general manager and oversees daily activities.
Meanwhile, Samantha works at a state social services office in Rolla, while Hillary and Noel also have day jobs. With Thomas family members going in so many directions, their efforts at the Phoenix Theater are undoubtedly a labor of love.
“We certainly enjoy it,” Richard said. “With all that it takes to run this place, we wouldn’t be doing it if we didn’t.”
The drive-in theater was the creation of Camden, New Jersey, chemical company magnate Richard M. Hollingshead, Jr., who conducted outdoor theater tests in the driveway of his home in nearby Riverton. After nailing a screen to trees in his backyard, he set a 1928 Kodak projector on the bonnet 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. Following his experiments, Hollingshead opened his first drive-in on June 6, 1933, featuring 400 parking slots and a 40-by-50-foot screen.
He advertised with the slogan, “The whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are.”
Movies at the Phoenix – both the drive-in and the indoor theaters – are played the old-fashioned way via a three-tier platter system. Flicks at the drive-in are projected onto a screen through a 1980s-era projector that uses a 4,500-watt bulb. Sound is broadcast by a half-watt system to cars’ FM radios, and there’s not a bad view on the 140-car capacity lot due to its strategic, multi-level design.
“And it’s great for kids, because they can get out and play and their parents won’t miss anything,” Richard said. “You can’t really stop the movie indoors if someone’s child acts up, so the parents usually have to step out for a while.”
With each step they take at the drive-in – whether loading projection gear with a film, making a batch of popcorn in the concessions building or mowing the grass between showings – the Thomas clan is preserving a unique piece of Americana that may be on a path that eventually leads to extinction.
“It’s definitely nostalgic and it’s nice keeping a little bit of that alive,” Samantha said.
The most popular movies to show during the Thomas family’s tenure at the Phoenix were “Cars 2” in the drive-in and “Twilight” indoors. Richard said choosing what movie to show comes down to some basic decisions.
“It boils down a lot of times to personal likes and dislikes,” he said. “We try to keep away from movies that have sex-oriented “R” ratings. Some films come out that are rated R for violence and action scenes, so if one comes along that’s R but has none of those types of scenes, you pretty much know where the rating comes from.
“Right or wrong, drive-ins have a reputation for being passion pits and we’re trying to downplay that. We stretch our comfort zone sometimes in order to bring in revenue – because there are bills that have to be paid – but we try to present mostly clean movies.”
“We definitely get bigger numbers when we have something more family-oriented,” Samantha said. “People in the area seem to prefer that. But we’re also trying to get the word out that we have more newer movies showing.”
On the Phoenix theater’s web site – www.phoenixdrivein.com – people can sometimes have input about movies being considered.
“If we have a couple of different options to choose from, we’ll put them up and people can choose between them,” Samantha said.
Obtaining a movie for showing sometimes involves paying surprisingly high percentages to distributors. While some older films might only require a 35-percent fee, the fee to run “Green Hornet” was a whopping 70-percent during what Richard called a slow time for films last winter.
“The choices were to pay that and have maybe 400 people come in and make the revenue off of concessions, or run something else that might run 35 percent and have fewer people,” he said. “That’s the same with all movie theaters – and 70 percent is only the base. Then there’s the 7.35 percent tax and a 10 percent donation to a church. That means about 88 percent of our seat take is already gone before you even include electric and everything else.
“It can get pretty tough if you don’t do well with the concessions.”
The 70-percent was an extreme example caused by a production company taking advantage of a lull in blockbuster films. First-run flicks usually cost more like 60 percent for the initial week, and then drop from there for additional weeks.
Under the ownership of Jaretta Lankford, a Houston resident who now runs a daycare center in Cabool, the current outdoor screen and its beefy metal base were erected in the mid-1990s to replace the original unit that was blown down by a strong, straight-line wind.
“It was totally destroyed and I had to build it back,” Lankford said.
Lankford owned the theater complex for most of the 90s. She recalls when the drive-in’s sound system was upgraded in the middle of the decade and the classic box speakers that patrons hung on their cars’ windows were replaced by FM broadcast.
“We kept some of the sound boxes because families liked them,” she said. “People used to sit on blankets and folding chairs and they still wanted to use them. It was an experience for people; there were many nights when there were more people outside their cars than inside.”
Running an outdoor theater led Lankford to pay close attention to weather and she said she learned well how to deal with it.
“I got really good at it,” she said. “I could tell when bad weather was coming in and I knew whether to spend money on a big movie or not.”
Like many former and current owners and fans of drive-ins, Lankford believes it would be a shame if outdoor film-viewing venues like the Phoenix went away completely.
“I went there when I was in high school and it was a very entertaining place to be,” she said. “The drive-in is such a great form of entertainment. It’s really more of an art form and I hope it stays alive.”
Having no previous experience with running a theater, Richard and his family have gleaned knowledge from some experienced movie people in the region, including the long-time owner of the Glass Sword Cinema in West Plains, Gary York.
“It’s all learning as we go,” Richard said. “The owner who had it before us had only had it less than a year when we bought it, so we learned some things from her but quickly got outside of her knowledge range. That’s where the Gary has come in handy. But he’s all digital now, so I don’t spend as much time talking to him.”
In 2013, the Phoenix and countless other small-time theaters will collectively face a turning point, as big Hollywood production companies go exclusively digital. When that happens, no new films will be made that are compatible with 35-millimeter equipment like the Phoenix employs.
“It’s a cost-saving move by the film companies,” Richard said. “They won’t have to incur the costs of all of the things that go wrong with 35 millimeter films, like disintegrating, and getting damaged in other ways. They’re trying to give everyone lots of advance warning, but it would be about $85,000 to go digital out here, so that’s probably not going to happen in the near future.
“We’re still trying to figure out exactly what we’re going to do, but there are enough 35 millimeter films, so we’ll probably do film festivals and run trilogies and that kind of thing.”
While it will make shipping, distributing and other nuts-and-bolts aspects of the movie industry easier and more cost-effective for many involved, the switch to digital could well represent another nail in the drive-in coffin.
“There are not many that have transitioned to digital at this point,” Richard said, “and yet the same deadline is looming for them that is looming for your indoor theaters.”
“It’s a scary thought,” Samantha said, “but we’ll see how it affects things. I’m not sure they really realize what they’re dealing with.”
Businesses, organizations, schools and churches are welcome to rent either Phoenix venue for exclusive showings. Some of the biggest crowds gather on such occasions, including the drive-in’s big “Cars 2” showing, which took place on a Texas County Memorial Hospital night.
The big “Twilight” run included two sold-out showings, as all 196 seats were packed for an opening-night midnight showing and were full again the following night for a normal time showing.
For the three weeks “Twilight” ran at the Phoenix, 1135 people watched, while a total of 997 saw “Cars 2.”
Movies at the Phoenix typically run for a week or so indoors and then move to the drive-in for another week.
Richard said that since his family took over at the Phoenix, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of customers. He figures several factors combine to make that rue, including the closure of the indoor theater in Cabool and the continuing struggles in the economy, which perhaps makes more people search for entertainment options closer to home.
Whatever the reasons, the Thomas bunch will take it.
“It’s been a real blessing,” Richard said. “And we just hope we can keep this going in the right direction.”
Missouri’s only operational drive-in theaters:
Sunset Drive-In (Aurora)
Starlite Drive-In (Cadet)
66 Drive-In (Carthage – Route 66)
19 Drive-In (Cuba – Route 66)
Phoenix Drive-In (Houston)
Twin Drive-In (Independence)
I-70 Drive-In (Kansas City)
Barco Drive-In (Lamar)
Moberly Five-And-Drive (Moberly)
Pine Hill Drive-In (Piedmont)
Owen Drive-In (Seymour)
21 Drive-In (Van Buren)