Where have all the drive-ins gone?

03/28/2016 6:00 AM |

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As uniquely American as rock ’n’ roll or apple pie, drive-in movie theaters once dotted the nation, their popularity fueled by suburbanites who enjoyed the convenience of not having to leave their cars.

“It was something new,” longtime Riverhead resident Thelma White recalled last week. “Something we had never had before.”

Between the 1950s and 1970s, the North Fork boasted two such institutions: the Skyway Drive-In Theatre in Greenport and the Flanders Drive-In Theatre in Riverside.

“Families could take their kids and they could go to sleep or go to the refreshment stand,” said Gail Horton, president of the Stirling Historical Society in Greenport. “It was just a great thing.”

In today’s digital age, both the long-extinct Skyway and Flanders drive-ins represent an era long since past. Their history, however, remains as rich as the pockets of an Old Hollywood director. Here’s a look back at their rise and eventual fall.

FLANDERS DRIVE-IN THEATRE

Despite its name, the Flanders Drive-In Theatre was actually located on Route 24 in Riverside. On a Friday evening in June 1955, the “ultra-modern” business celebrated its gala opening, according to an advertisement published in a contemporary issue of the County Review, the forebear to the Riverhead News-Review.

“Relax — smoke — talk. Have a grand time!” the ad encouraged prospective customers. “Dress as you like for convenience and comfort!”

TR0324_RE_Driveins2_C.jpgOwned by Prudential Theatres, the Flanders Drive-In was capable of accommodating an impressive 1,000 cars. The year the business opened, the Long Island Traveler/Mattituck Watchman reported that it featured a Cinemascope projector 110 feet wide and seven stories high, with “curves and tilts to ensure perfect visibility and light reflection.” Children under the age of 12 enjoyed free admission, films began promptly at dusk and a refreshment pavilion served all-American fare like hot dogs and popcorn.

“The drive-in was great,” said David Peter Fitzgerald, a 65-year-old Riverside native. “Horrible food, but who cared?”

According to a 1983 New York Times article commemorating the 50th anniversary of drive-ins, most businesses also featured snack bars and playgrounds, the latter of which were sometimes supervised so that parents could watch a double feature in relative privacy. The Flanders Drive-In was among them, with a so-called kiddie playland that included swings, slides and a whirl-a-round.

Ms. White said she has “many recollections” of taking in movies at the Flanders Drive-In, both as a girl and later with her three children.

“I used to give my kids their bath and put their pajamas on and we’d go to the movies,” she recalled. “It was very popular. Sometimes families would meet up together.”

Although it seems to have been successful, the Flanders Drive-In celebrated its final season in 1974.

It’s unclear why the theater closed. Some say a hurricane destroyed its projector, but Mr. Fitzgerald suspects rising property taxes made the site prohibitively expensive — a fate that eventually befell the majority of American drive-ins.

“I think the upkeep was so high they weren’t making much of a profit,” he said.

Today, the lot the Flanders Drive-In sat on is empty, leaving former customers like Ms. White wishing it were still around.

“I miss it,” she said. “I really do.”

SKYWAY DRIVE-IN THEATRE

Located on the north side of Route 25 at Greenport’s western edge, the Skyway Drive-In Theatre opened sometime in 1950. One year later, the Long Island Traveler/Watchman reported that the seasonal business, which was considerably smaller than its Riverside counterpart, was “the only open-air motion picture theater in Suffolk County.”

“It was quite a popular place,” said Josephine Watkins-Johnson, a 95-year-old Greenport resident who vividly remembers taking her four children there in her Chevrolet GMC.

“It was sort of an outlet where we could go and be comfortable,” she said. “The kids were safe and secure.”

As with the Flanders Drive-In, children under 12 received free admission to Skyway and films began at dusk. The site also featured a playground and snack bar.

In the 1950s, Ms. Watkins-Johnson said, “You could take the whole family for less than a dollar, I believe. And hot dogs were five cents.”

As with drive-ins around the country, teenagers took a particular liking to the outdoor theater.

“You could make out there while watching a good movie,” Ms. Horton said with a laugh.

In 1955, the Traveler/Watchman reported that a hurricane had damaged the drive-in’s equipment, forcing its owners to spend $20,000 on repairs, which included the purchase of a new 40-by-85-foot screen.

Ms. Horton, who wrote a series of remembrances about the Skyway in 2010 for the Peconic Bay Shopper, said the theater was closed in 1975 and the property sold to St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, which still owns it today.TR0324_RE_Driveins1_BE_C.jpg

While the drive-in’s screen is gone, modern motorists have no doubt noticed the theater’s original marquee, which church officials now use to offer faith-based witticisms.

“It was so sad to see [the drive-in] go,” Ms. Horton said. “I’m glad they at least still have the sign up.”

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Did you know?

• The world’s first drive-in theater opened in 1933 in Camden, N.J. The concept of watching films on an outdoor projector from inside a vehicle was the brainchild of Richard Hollingshead Jr., who patented his idea that same year.

• By the 1950s, drive-ins were wildly popular. According to Smithsonian Magazine, the number of outdoor theaters peaked at 4,063 in 1958. Statistics compiled by the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association found that just 393 drive-ins were still open as of 2014. None are located on Long Island, but New York State itself still has around 15 outdoor theaters.

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