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

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."

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Niki D'Andrea has covered subjects including drug culture, women's basketball, pirate radio stations, Scottsdale staycations, and fine wine. She has worked at both New Times and Phoenix Magazine, and is now a freelancer.
Contact: Niki D'Andrea