Drive-in's fans say goodbye to a screen gem

The end for Dallas' last outdoor screen marks a beginning for DISD

08:35 PM CST on Saturday, February 14, 2004

By MICHAEL E. YOUNG / The Dallas Morning News

As the golden twilight faded to black, the kids from Cockrell Hill watched fresh lights flicker and glow a cartoon band playing and a couple dancing, neon characters on the six-story screen tower of the neighborhood's brand-new theater, the Jefferson Drive-In.

As the golden twilight faded to black, the kids from Cockrell Hill watched fresh lights flicker and glow a cartoon band playing and a couple dancing, neon characters on the six-story screen tower of the neighborhood's brand-new theater, the Jefferson Drive-In.

"We lived about a half-mile away, and I remember standing at the corner with the other kids the night the Jefferson opened, watching as the neon mural came on," said Jerry Felts, who now lives in Carrollton.

"And we thought, if that's all a drive-in theater is, we weren't very interested."

Of course, interests change, and for almost 40 years, from its opening in 1949 until 1987, and then briefly in 1989 and 1990, the Jefferson brought the magic of movies to this corner of southwestern Dallas County, painting memories as vivid as the Technicolor images that splashed across the big screen.

In recent years, the Jefferson has served as a parking lot for big trucks, although its screen tower and marquee remained. But even that incarnation is to end soon.

The Dallas school district bought the old drive-in last week for $750,000, and by late summer 2005, it will be the site of a new elementary school.

"It's sad to see the Jefferson go," said Sam Love, who frequented the Jefferson while growing up, worked at the Country Squire Drive-In in Duncanville and now hosts an Internet site honoring the old theaters. "That was the last screen tower still standing in Dallas County."

Mr. Felts found it interesting that children would still be educated at that site.

"Because many," he said, "received an education at the Jefferson."

In the 1950s and '60s, the heyday of drive-in theaters in America, families would head out to places like the Jefferson Mom and Dad in the front seat and the kids in the back, often in their pajamas in case they slipped off to sleep before the last reel.

Family appeal

"Families could come together, and if the parents wanted some time alone, they could send the kids on their way to play in the drive-in's playground," said Mr. Felts, who worked at the Jefferson in 1961 and '62.

"I can remember a few times the kids coming up to the snack bar because they couldn't find their cars. It turned out the parents had deliberately moved them for that reason."

Some drive-in theaters in the Sun Belt even offered portable air conditioners, though neither Mr. Love nor Mr. Felts could recall any so equipped in Dallas. But back then, people seemed less concerned about the Texas heat, they said.

"Of course, this was before the world was air-conditioned," Mr. Felts said, "so you were kind of used to it."

Ken Holmes of Arlington worked with Mr. Love in the mid-'60s, mostly at the Country Squire but often at the Jefferson, too.

"Actually, I was hired at the Jefferson, but to work at the Country Squire," he said. "The manager of the Country Squire was working at the Jefferson that night, because they had the same owners."

Mr. Holmes remembered renting small heaters to folks visiting the theaters in the winter but never saw an air conditioner. He never thought he needed one.

"It was a joy to work there," he said. "It was fun to be outside like that. We never minded the heat."

Action films, mysteries

Many drive-ins had the reputation of showing mostly "B" movies often action flicks and mysteries filmed with lower budgets and lesser stars and Mr. Felts recalled that the Jefferson rarely showed the biggest blockbusters.

But it never lacked star power.

"Usually movies were there for a week, but sometimes they'd hold them over. I remember when Donovan's Reef was there, with John Wayne and Lee Marvin, and I think it was held over for three weeks," he said. "By the end of its run, I was so sick of that movie."

Mr. Love remembered the Jefferson showing first-run films, the same movies you'd see at an indoor theater.

"They were all first-run," he said, "the John Wayne movies, the Elvis movies, things like that.

"I saw True Grit at the drive-in."

The Jefferson drew steady crowds for decades, but movie lovers weren't the only folks drawn there.

Target practice

"My dad was a Cockrell Hill police officer back in the late '40s and early '50s, and some of the officers from Cockrell Hill and Dallas would get together out there after the theater closed to hang out and talk," Mr. Holmes said, "and one night they were out there and they decided to have a little target practice.

"Now, I don't know what they were shooting at, but suddenly they get a call that neighbors are reporting gunfire at the Jefferson. So they get back in their cars and drive off, then come racing back with their lights and sirens on.

"Of course, they were the culprits," Mr. Holmes said.

Changing times gradually ended America's affair with the drive-in.

As Dallas grew, the city lights dimmed the shows on the screen a bit. And when daylight-saving time was introduced again during the oil crisis of the early '70s, "that was the final nail in the coffin," Mr. Felts said.

"That was a big problem," Mr. Love agreed. "It's hard to bring families out to the movies if you can't start showing them until 9 o'clock in July."

All of the old Dallas drive-ins are closed, most no more than memories. But people who grew up with drive-ins can't forget them, and they mark each loss.

Final showings

"I've been by there three or four times in the last year, and I always look at it as I drive by," Mr. Holmes said. "That was a neat-looking theater in its heyday, a landmark. And now they're going to tear it down."

But the drive-in is such an icon in America that its image lingers long after most of the theaters were bulldozed for something a little more modern.

"You see them a lot in music videos, especially the country music videos that I watch," Mr. Love said.

Fans travel long distances to seek out old drive-ins.

"Some are enthusiasts like me, who put up Web sites and go on tours," Mr. Love said. "And then there are some people who are young and never had the chance to go to one, or they're older and remember going with the family and they wish their grandkids could experience the same thing."

Fortunately, some can.

A few drive-ins remain in business in North and Central Texas, some as popular as they ever were.

"There's one down in Gatesville that does well," Mr. Holmes said. "During the summer, when you think it'd be too hot, you have to get out there early or else you won't get a parking spot. People have picnics, the kids play, everyone really likes it.

"And there's another one in Granbury where the cars back onto the highway as people wait to get in."

A two-screen drive-in opened in Lubbock a year or so ago, Mr. Love said, and a multiscreen drive-in is under construction north of Ennis.

"There's interest there, and I think if some were to be built where you didn't have the constant battle of someone wanting to buy the land to build something else, and if you were away from the city lights, you'd see some revenue generated," Mr. Love said.

"But the big problem is society in this day and age just doesn't do much as a family anymore."