Author and self-proclaimed “world’s foremost drive-in movie critic” Joe Bob Briggs once said, “The drive-in will never die.”
And while the physical theaters, with towering screens as big as the West Texas sky and rusted, crackly speakers that somehow seem to make movies sound better, are fewer and further between now than they ever have been, the vivid memories of those hot summer movie nights live on.
“In the back, there was always a party on the weekend,” former theater owner Catherine Graff said, adding with a chuckle, “I don’t know how many kids I’ve talked to who said, ‘I was made at the theater.’
Graff’s father, Tom, bought the theater in 1978, which her family owned up until its sale in May.
The theater was built by Bill Sharp, Ed Misener and Vernon Paddock in the late ‘40s. According to Sharp’s obituary, the trio removed old grapevines, paved the theater lot, installed speakers and built the snack bar and the screen.
The theater officially opened on Thursday, Oct. 20, 1949, showing the films “Susie Steps Out” and “Red Canyon.”
The Miseners sold the theater to local entrepreneur George Peterson in 1955.
Catherine was 21 when her father, who owned several theaters throughout the state, bought the Kings Drive-in. The first film shown under the new management was “The Lifeguard” starring Sam Elliot.
The theater became a true family business – Catherine worked in the concession stand on weekends and her parents lived in a bungalow built under the screen. In addition, the theater, then nearing three decades old, underwent a facelift.
After renovating the snack bar, playground and screen, then-manager Ed La Roque, told the Sentinel, “We’ve done more business in one week than the previous owners did in a month.”
The theater, ahead of the curve of the industry, also switched from stationary speakers that attached to car windows to using Cinema Radio to broadcast the films’ soundtracks over the radio to be picked up by vehicles.
“Eventually, most drive-ins will probably go this route. It’s the wave of the future,” Tom Graff told the Sentinel in 1978.
The switch couldn’t have happened sooner for Harvey Brown, a native of Hanford who now lives in Portland, Oregon, who told the Sentinel about a speaker faux paus he committed one night in the ‘60s.
“Regretfully one night after the movie, I forgot to put the speaker back on its pole and drove away. I ripped it right out. I was so afraid that I would go to prison, that I sped home. It did look real cool in my bedroom,” Brown wrote in an email. “Still feel bad about it.”
In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, the drive-in made an effort to become more family-friendly by discontinuing its late-night X-rated features and showing more PG-rated films.
However, the drive-in is inherently a place to party. It’s ingrained in its very DNA. From its beginnings as a cheap way to offer the Greatest Generation to spend some time post-WWII to its heyday as ground zero for ‘50s B-movie schlock and, later, ‘70s grindhouse exploitation, the only y crime that a night at the drive in could commit is to be boring.
Catherine recalls movie-goers hauling sofas in the back of their trucks and handfuls of teens emerging from trunks, thinking they’d gotten one over on the management that probably always knew and never seemed to mind.
“As kids, we went to the drive-in, but my brother had to take me and my best friend. Most of the time he would hide us in the trunk of his car so he could pocket our money to buy snacks. I’ve always remembered this. I turned 83 yesterday and I can still remember doing this a few times. I laugh at the things we did,” Teresa Gonzales-John said via Facebook.
By the end of its run, the Kings Drive-In, like most drive-ins around the country, primarily screened family-friendly films as a way to offer a full night of family fun on the cheap. And while the drive-in may be remembered by many as the first place they saw a monster movie or had their first kiss, for just as many, the drive-in was a place for the family to get together for memorable night.
“Adventures were expensive for a family of seven back in the sixties. We would load up the station wagon with pillows and blankets for family discount night. Typically big religious epics like “The Ten Commandments.” Mom prepared a homemade delicious feast for us -- corn dogs, popcorn, candy and soda pop,” Sally Stites said via Facebook. “Lifelong good memories of the drive-in.”
And while many have memories of weekends spent at the drive in, Catherine’s daughter, Emma, can say she spent her entire childhood there.
“I literally spent my childhood there with a giant 50-foot flat-screen television in my front yard. It was cool,” said Emma, who worked at the theater until its closure in 2012.
The marquee, which faces 14th avenue, still advertises the theater’s final show. The musical “Pitch Perfect” and the Liam Neeson action film “Taken” closed the theater’s illustrious 63-year run.
In addition to years of wear-and-tear and vandalism, the industry’s inevitable switch from 35mm film to digital projection were the writing on the wall, marking the end for the theater. Movie studios phased out the use of film reels in favor of digital copies in the early 2010s.
“That made it very difficult,” Catherine said. “We just couldn’t do it.”
In order to upgrade to digital, the theater would need a “total re-do,” Graff said, adding that upgrading to digital projectors and sound systems would cost around $2 million and that a second screen would likely need to be added to even begin to break even.
“It was very depressing, but we knew it would happen. That’s just the way it is,” she said. “We really enjoyed it, we had a lot of fun and we did well, but sometimes things just become obsolete.”