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Scottsdale 6 Bites the Dust -- the Latest in a Long Line of Shuttered Drive-Ins

Table by William LeGoullon
William LeGoullon/legoullonphotography.com

The Pooles and the Canfields met up under the stars one night last month, but not like they used to.

For years, a typical Friday evening found Scott and Eva Poole and Jesse and Jill Canfield at the drive-in movies. The 40-something Pooles went almost every weekend for decades, often with their three (now grown) children in tow. The Canfields, both 32, had most of their "cheap date nights" here before getting married. The two couples actually met at the Scottsdale 6, and they made a weekly ritual of meeting up early before watching the latest blockbuster movie on the big screens.

"Right now, we should be setting up our lawn chairs, getting a pizza from Gus' Pizza, smoking a cigar," Jesse Canfield says.

Instead, they're gathered in the parking lot of an auto shop strip mall on a Friday evening in late September, across the street from the former Scottsdale 6, which screened its last movies August 28. There's a banner on the chain-link gate that reads "Closed. Thank you for your patronage." Six blank drive-in screens loom like celluloid tombstones in the sunset.

Aside from the nearby Big Surf water park and the Tempe Marketplace on the other side of the freeway, there isn't much life around the old Scottsdale 6 — just a big cemetery called Green Acres, surrounded by miles of undeveloped land, much of it belonging to the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community.

It's hard for anyone here tonight to imagine anything going up in place of Scottsdale 6 anytime soon.

The overall feeling tonight at this "Scotts­dale 6 Memorial Rally" is one of mourning and nostalgia. There's also a sense of disappointment, because there are only six people here: the Pooles, the Canfields, and two reporters. Aside from the latter, these people form the core of the new Arizona Drive-In Movie Society; they founded a Facebook group called "Save the Scottsdale 6," which quickly drew members — 476 in less than two weeks.

"I was hoping more people would be here," Jesse Canfield says. "I really want people to understand that it takes more than joining a Facebook group. Come out to some events; go see a drive-in movie."

Since opening in 1977, Scottsdale 6 was a hub of dying American culture, one of the last remnants of our country's drive-in movie theater craze. Every evening, people came here to set up lawn chairs, sprawl out on mattresses in truck beds, and even set up barbecues among the dust clouds at dusk. On Tuesday nights, they'd pay $4.50 per person for two movies, unpack a bucket of chicken or a pizza, some blankets and pillows, and their kids, who would flock to the arcade inside the concession stand while the adults met up with fellow drive-in regulars for a game of cards or a round of drinks.

When Scottsdale 6 closed because it couldn't reach a new lease agreement with the landowners, Valley drive-in enthusiasts started banding together — first, to try to save Scottsdale 6, and now, as that seems impossible, to try to save what's left of the Valley's once-thriving drive-in culture. At one time, there were more than 50 drive-ins across Arizona. With the closing of Scotts­dale 6, there are now, only two left in the entire state: Glendale 9, off 55th Avenue and Bethany Home Road, and Globe's seasonal, single-screen Apache Drive-In.

Drive-in theaters have been dying rapidly across the nation for the past two decades. At their peak in the early 1950s, there were around 4,000 drive-in theaters in the United States. A number of factors — including the changing image of drive-ins, difficulties procuring first-run films, licensing fees, and, most notably, the increasing value of land — has caused that number to dwindle to just an estimated 371 nationwide today.

For fans of drive-ins, the decline is a tragedy, a vanishing piece of Americana that must be salvaged. Many Scottsdale 6 regulars have started going to Glendale 9 and say they'll also go to the Apache in Globe when it reopens next spring. "I was devastated when I heard Scottsdale 6 closed," Eva Poole says. "My kids have gone to the drive-in, and one day, I'd like to take my grandkids. I think a lot of people have never experienced it . . . It's Americana. It's history."

It's also the topic of an art exhibit, opening October 21 at Bokeh Gallery in Phoenix.

Drive-ins long had been a disappearing culture when local photographer William LeGoullon started photographing them in 2009, for an exhibition titled "Intermissions," originally shown at eye lounge. The exhibition started as a project in which LeGoullon photographed during the day places that usually were active only at night.

"I started to observe the fact that this is a place that's a classic American landscape — old popcorn stands, old neon lights," LeGoullon says. "What I found interesting was seeing these symbols, and how some have survived and how some have been affected over time, either by weathering or technology. It's a mixture of a classic place that still holds a lot of nostalgia, but in a modern time."

 

Now, LeGoullon's photos of the Scottsdale 6 may be the only part of it that lives on, aside from memories.

The first drive-in theater opened in Pennsauken, New Jersey, on June 6, 1933. It was the brainchild of Richard M. Hollingshead Jr., whose family owned the R.M. Hollingshead Corporation chemical plant in Camden. This first drive-in had one 40-foot-by-50-foot screen and room for 400 cars. It was billed as a place to bring the whole family, regardless of how noisy the kids were.

Several more drive-in theaters opened across the country throughout the '30s, including the Pico in Los Angeles and the Drive-In Short Reel Theater in Galveston, Texas. By the end of the '40s, drive-ins were thriving across the country, thanks to the economic boom following the end of World War II and the appeal of watching a film on a large screen, with the freedom to eat, smoke, or make out in the comfort of one's car. For younger patrons, there was also the thrill of trying to sneak people in for free by stuffing them in the trunk.

Drive-in movie theaters popped up across Arizona, thanks to mild winter climates in Phoenix and mild summer climates in the northern part of the state. One of the oldest drive-ins in Arizona, the Cactus Drive-In, opened in Tucson in 1951. Over the next three decades, more than 50 drive-ins operated across the state, including several in Phoenix.

Hollis Enterprises, a family-owned company, opened the single-screen Apache Drive-In in Globe in 1974. It's still open, albeit only during the spring and summer. Branch manager Robert Hollis said business then "was about the same as it is today. Our drive-in is very family-oriented. Parents come out with kids in the truck or the car, put them to bed, maybe have a few beers."

The movies were incidental, really. Phoenix-based "information curator" Marshall Shore says he talked to a lot of people about their drive-in memories after Scottsdale 6 closed.

"A lot of people have memories of the drive-in that aren't movie-related. Only one person I talked to even remembered a movie they saw," Shore says. "But they remembered who they were with, and what they did before or during the show. It was all about the social aspect."

Though originally marketed as family entertainment, drive-ins had a reputation by the 1950s as places where teenagers went to steam up their car windows. It worsened by the 1970s. Many drive-ins, discouraged by some studios' unwillingness to license new blockbuster features to them (Universal withheld E.T. until a year after its theatrical release, as 20th Century Fox did with Return of the Jedi), began showing exploitation and adult-content films in an effort to boost ticket sales.

"Some drive-ins [in Phoenix] were doing Spanish-language films, and some were doing porn. So they were going where the market was," Shore says. "We had some drive-ins that started showing XXX movies, and people were complaining about seeing these images on the screens while they were just driving down the street."

In Phoenix in 1973, four seconds of nudity in The Last Picture Show — a Peter Bogdanovich film starring Jeff Bridges and Cybill Shepherd — prompted city attorney Joe R. Purcell to send a notice to J.M. Mayfield, the manager of the Northern Drive-In, telling him the film he was showing violated state obscenity law. Mayfield pulled the movie, which features a skinny-dipping scene. When Purcell demanded four seconds of the scene be cut from the film before it could be screened again in Phoenix, the film's production company, BBS Productions Inc., and its distributor, Columbia Pictures, sued Purcell in U.S. District Court, claiming their right to free speech was being violated. The court sided with them, finding that the film didn't violate state law and, therefore, could not lawfully be suppressed.

Things went differently for Tucson's Apache Drive-In Theater in 1971, when city attorney Lewis C. Murphy sued to stop a showing of the film Lysistrata. Murphy claimed the movie, based on Greek comic playwright Aristophanes' play about women withholding sex from their husbands, had obscene parts that could be seen outside the drive-in. The Arizona Court of Appeals upheld the injunction, finding that showing the film in a manner that caused it to be seen by people without their consent invaded the rights of the public.

By the late 1980s, many drive-ins around the country had closed, and the survivors were struggling. Sprawling drive-in lots were too valuable in developers' eyes, especially when many drive-ins operated only in the summer. With home-movie choices like cable TV, the VCR, and the DVD player competing for people's entertainment dollars, many drive-ins tried to stay afloat by hosting swap meets on the weekends (Glendale 9 still does it).

 

Other survival tactics include recapturing the family entertainment aspect, showing more new releases, offering playgrounds for children, and expanding concession stands to include fare like cheeseburgers and pizza.

In Arizona, like other places that still have the rare drive-in theater, nostalgia's a big draw. The old drive-ins along Arizona's highways are popular among road-tripping photographers, especially the former ruins of the Tonto Drive-In Theatre in Winslow, located off old Route 66 and visible from I-40. For years, the sun-bleached marquee and looming, silent screen towered off the freeway. The buildings and screen were demolished in 2002, and the entire site since has been bulldozed.

There are a few reasons for the decline of drive-ins, but lack of attendance isn't one of them.

Tony Maniscalco, vice president of marketing for West Wind, the California-based company that owned Scottsdale 6 and continues to operate Glendale 9, says the company's business, circuit-wide, is up 43 percent.

The problem for drive-in theaters is really the value of the land on which they sit.

When Scottsdale 6 closed, it was because West Wind and the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, which owns the land, could not reach an agreement for a new lease when West Wind's former lease expired on August 24. Maniscalco says West Wind is "still trying to negotiate with the Native American community" but acknowledges, "I don't know what our chances are."

"I do believe they have plans for that property that don't include a drive-in," Maniscalco says.

The week Scottsdale 6 closed, representatives for the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community told the news media that West Wind had failed to file documents needed for a new lease agreement. They did not indicate what they might do with the land.

Maniscalco says West Wind, which now owns seven drive-ins in three states, is not currently looking for a new location for Scottsdale 6, but Glendale 9 will stay open. Hollis and Maniscalco both say drive-ins do not generate much revenue from movie ticket sales. They have to pay movie production companies to show their films, and by the time those fees are paid, there's not a lot left.

"All profits are generated at the concession stand," Hollis says. "You don't make money selling movie tickets."

Admission to drive-ins traditionally has been cheaper than seeing movies at "hard top" theaters. A movie ticket at a standard theater generally costs $7.50 to $10. Admission to see a double feature (including a first-run film) at Glendale 9 costs $6.50 per person; $4.50 per person on Tuesdays.

Globe's Apache Drive-In, which Hollis estimates probably will reopen around May 1, charges $15 per car, regardless of how many people are in it. "Bring a bus," Hollis says.

And there may be some buses heading to the Apache when it reopens. Hollis says he already has regulars that make the trek from cities like Pinetop, Phoenix, and Florence, because nighttime summer temperatures are generally a little cooler in Globe. And Maniscalco says he thinks a lot of Scottsdale 6 regulars already have transitioned to Glendale 9.

Drive-in fans are not taking the closure of Scottsdale 6 lightly. Less than two weeks after Scottsdale 6 went dark, the Pooles and Canfields launched their Facebook group and started the Arizona Drive-In Movie Society.

"We want to figure out a way to help preserve what we have, and maybe even encourage somebody to open a new drive-in," Eva Poole says. "We can't fight a losing battle with the owners [of the former Scottsdale 6 land]. We understand that. We need to say, 'Okay, it's gone, but we still need to support West Wind and the theater in Globe.'"

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