Every time I have a date there’s only one place to go
That’s to the drive in
It’s such a groovy place to talk and maybe watch a show
Down at the drive in
When it opened 71 years ago this month — on July 11, 1947 — the first drive-in theater in Palm Beach County didn’t have a name. Just called “Drive In Theatre” or “The Family Theatre,” the one-screen operation was in an empty lot west of Morrison Field, now PBIA, on Southern Boulevard.
“See and hear your favorite movies under the stars in the cool comfort of your car,” an ad in The Palm Beach Post read.
The debut movie was a John Wayne oater called “Dakota,” plus another feature, some short subjects and a midnight show. To watch The Duke vanquish baddies, it cost 35 cents (including tax), but you could bring all the kids under 12 for free.
Thus began a decades-long love affair with drive-in movies. If you’re of a certain age, you remember the rituals of drive-in summer nights— piling in the car, speakers mounted on poles, snack bar hangs, that strange hot dog ad, creature double features, dusk-to-dawn marathons, trying to sneak your pals in the trunk and, perhaps most important, making out in the back seat far from the prying eyes of parents.
Palm Beach County is lucky. It still has an outdoor theater — the Lake Worth Drive-In. There isn’t another one north along Florida’s eastern coastline, and it is one of only seven drive-in theaters left in the state. At one time, Palm Beach County had six.
The history of drive-ins locally would make a decent bottom-of-the-bill B-movie: a boom-to-bust tale, from wholesome features to X-rated nudies, and featuring a weird plotline of religion, rioting, flea markets, obscenity arrests and even manslaughter.
Let’s all go to the drive-in
That first local drive-in — which finally got called the Boulevard — opened 14 years after the concept was created in Camden, New Jersey. Others quickly followed. Across the country, drive-in growth rocketed from 155 in 1949 to more than 4,000 by 1959, according to online reports. The Dixie Skydrome, dubbed “The South’s Most Beautiful Drive-In Theater,” opened on North Dixie Highway in Lake Worth in January 1949. The Beach Drive-In at Old Dixie and Flagler in Riviera Beach followed in April 1951. The Delray Drive-In on Federal Highway came a year later.
In October 1948, an ad appeared in the Post for a Boynton Outdoor Drive-In Theatre. It said the theater was “for colored,” in the era’s segregationist phraseology. It also said there would be a “reserved section for white.” There was never another mention in the paper, but readers believe it may have been west of the city, and also had wooden benches for migrant workers.
As competition heated up in the ’50s and television started blunting moviegoing habits, theater owners launched all kinds of publicity schemes to lure atomic-age audiences. In 1954, the Boulevard widened its screen to 91 feet to accommodate Cinemascope technology. The Beach advertised a “Giant 4-Feature Race-O-Thon” of car movies. Skydrome offered “Win A Puppy Night.” It also pumped up the showing of “Karamoja — Land of Lost People” by saying it had run out of speakers for cars: “Nothing Like This Ever Before! Folks Keep Coming From All Directions!”
By the mid-’50s, theaters realized they had valuable land sitting fallow during daytime hours. And so the “drive-in church” was born, with both the Boulevard and Skydrome offering space for Sunday services. Vehicles served as pews, and ministers spread the gospel through speakers. “The drive-in church provides a service for those who find it difficult to attend church because of crowds, high stairs and other obstacles,” one ad read. “Bring those who are physically handicapped.” Refreshments would be served afterward at a “reception hall,” presumably the snack bar.
Drive-ins not all fun, fun, fun
Death came to the drive-in on June 10, 1961. “Boy’s Throat Cut At Theater,” the Post headline read. Eugene R. McClure, 18, of Gainesville, Ga., was killed after a knife fight witnessed by carloads of teenagers during a night of Alan Ladd and Fabian movies at the Dixie Skydrome. A 17-year-old, Dave A. Winkler of Lake Worth, pleaded innocent to a charge of manslaughter. The paper said McClure, visiting relatives in Lake Park, “goaded” Winkler in an argument over a girl.
On Sept. 21, after three hours of deliberations, a jury found Winkler guilty in a verdict that pushed international news down the front page. During the three-day trial, McClure’s mother had to be removed from the courtroom after screaming “Lies! Lies!” at the defense counsel. Winkler testified that he tried to help drive McClure to a hospital after the stabbing. Teenage eyewitness accounts differed — some said McClure had a hammer and wrench, not a knife, others said that Winkler initially tried to avoid fighting McClure, who called him “chicken.” Arguments of self-defense were rejected, and Winkler was sentenced from six months to three years in jail, the Post reported.
In other news that decade, 1966 brought a marked change to drive-ins. The Beach turned its lot into a swap shop and flea market during the daytime. Almost every other area drive-in would eventually follow suit.
And a fifth drive-in opened in March 1968: The Trail, on Lake Worth Road, which is today the Lake Worth Drive-In. It claimed to be “a new star” in drive-in technology, boasting “space age projection,” wider car aisles and a modern snack bar.
Business seemed to be booming, but signs of a different, disquieting era were on the horizon.
Sin at the drive-in
A new permissiveness burst forth in America in the late ’60s, and it was translated on movie screens through the ’70s. In the Post, ads for adult theaters and salacious, soft-core features shared space with mainstream Hollywood fare. X-rated movies were late-night staples at drive-ins, which juggled a mix of everything from family films to martial arts flicks. At the Boulevard, a showing of “The Young Seducers” offered this come-on: Admission for “stags”: $1. Couples: $1.50.
In 1970, Lake Worth city officials decided to stamp out such smut and targeted the Skydrome and the downtown Playtoy adult theater, now the Lake Worth Playhouse. An owner and three workers were arrested at the Skydrome for showing allegedly obscene material.
Drive-in growth continued. By 1975, the Delray theater expanded to two screens, and drive-ins opened in Fort Pierce and Belle Glade. But the first casualty occurred in 1978: the Skydrome folded, after 29 years.
The decline and fall of drive-ins
As the ’80s dawned, sexually explicit fare continued to be a problem. The manager of the Fort Pierce Drive-In was arrested in 1980 for screening a midnight X-rated movie called “The Pig Keeper’s Daughter,” which was probably not a documentary on best practices for agricultural workers.
Also that year, a melee broke out at the Delray Drive-In. A dozen arrests were made and 70 police officers called in after beer-drinking youths slashed the tires of a sheriff’s officer’s car and started hurling rocks and bottles. One deputy was accused of excessive force and got a 10-day suspension.
In April 1982, Judge Emery Newell went to the Delray Drive-In to see “Debbie Does Dallas.” He was there because neighbors complained that the film, about the lengths a woman would go to make a Texas football cheerleading squad, was “downright dirty.” Newell agreed, and county prosecutor David Bludworth seized the film. Harry Timpe, who lived in the nearby Anchorage Mobile Home Park, told the Post he see could see the movie from his living room window: “I heard it was terrible and when I glanced out the window a few times, it didn’t look good.”
That same year, the Post wrote an obituary of sorts for the drive-in. Preston Henn, owner of the Delray Drive-In and eventually the Lake Worth Drive-In, admitted that they were mostly hanging on through money from swap shop operations.
One year later, the Boulevard, perhaps Florida’s third oldest drive-in, quietly closed. By then, its multicolored sign lights were burning out and the lot was full of potholes. In 1985, the Beach changed management and later closed. Belle Glade’s Lake Drive-In eventually turned out the lights, too.
In 1986, the Fort Pierce Drive-in shuttered, the last on the Treasure Coast. In 1988, the Delray Drive-In stopped showing movies, though the swap shop continued there for a time. The Lake Worth Drive-In almost went under in 2002, with the county planning a community center on the property, but a Florida theater owner bought it at the last minute and today it is owned by the late Henn’s family.
Despite the drive-in’s precipitous downfall — only about 300 exist nationwide — it remains a cherished, indelible memory for many generations of moviegoers.
Post readers on Facebook recalled dusk-to-dawn Elvis movie marathons at the Boulevard and Edgar Allan Poe fright nights at the Beach.
“Delray Drive-In is where I used to babysit younger sister Becky,” recalled Laura Alford. She remembered telling her toddler sis, “‘Get in the trunk, Becky,’ to which she would always comply angelically with ‘OK!’ so we could get in cheaper.”
“True story,” replied Becky. “Amazing what a little sister will be willing to do just to hang out with the big kids.”
And to hang out at the drive-in, where it was always cool despite the heat.
Sources: Post researcher Melanie Mena contributed to this report, along with Post archives, and the websites history.com and mortaljourney.com.
THE LAST PICTURE SHOWS
The remaining drive-ins of Florida
LAKE WORTH DRIVE-IN: Palm Beach County’s only drive-in is a swap shop during the days. It gets good online reviews for its low movie prices ($7 for adults, $2 for kids), but so-so on other amenities. 3438 Lake Worth Rd., 561-965-4518. www.floridaswapshop.com
SWAP SHOP DRIVE-IN: 3101 W. Sunrise Boulevard, Fort Lauderdale. Information: 954-791-7927; www.floridaswapshop.com
JOY LAN DRIVE-IN: Dade City, joylandrivein.com
SILVER MOON DRIVE-IN: Lakeland, silvermoondrivein.com
OCALA DRIVE-IN: Ocala, ocaladrivein.info
RUSKIN FAMILY DRIVE-IN: Ruskin, ruskinfamilydrivein.com
SWAP SHOP FUN LAN DRIVE-IN: Tampa, www.floridaswapshop.com