Just a few of the faithful turn out at St. Petersburg, Florida's last drive-in theater, where you can see two second-run features for just $5 a carload. Sixteen tubs of fresh popcorn sit under a warming lamp inside an empty orange and white concession stand. Muzak piped through the speakers wafts around the lot, and, from his booth, ticket taker Dave Mazzola tells customers to enjoy the show.
It's just before sundown at the 28th Street Drive-In Theater, Pinellas County's last such vestige of a generation raised on Howdy Doody, Maypo, and a winning New York Mets. The 28th Street has survived the fall of outdoor theatres in St. Petersburg. Long gone is South Pasadena's Sky-Vue. What was once the Garden Drive-In has been replaced by a Wal-Mart. In Pinellas Park, the venerable Mustang Theater is now home only to bargain-hunting flea market browsers.
Situated in a curious blend of industrial businesses and mobile home parks, and mostly surrounded by trees, 28th Street is set in a part of town that filters out artificial lights for optimum film viewing. But 28th Street's workers realize that changing times and trends have all but spelled goodbye for St. Petersburg's last drive-in theater.
"We're trying to keep it alive, but it's out of our hands," Mazzola says from a glass ticket booth ringed with neon. "We're going week by week." He ascribes the decline in drive-in popularity to a swerve in cultural trends, mainly the relative comfort and flashiness of walk-in theaters.
"Myself, I prefer a drive-in, because I smoke, and you can't smoke in a closed theater. Here you can bring a lawn chair and snacks, and just sit and watch the show," Mazzola says.
A New Jersey auto parts sales manager, Richard Hollingshead, hatched the idea of drive-in theaters during the Depression. After patenting his invention in 1933, Hollingshead and three other investors launched the first drive-in theater in Camden, charging 25 cents per person. It spawned several imitators.
Florida hit its drive-in peak in 1954, with a statewide total of 158 theaters. The number steadily dwindled, however, toward the late 1960s, as more shopping malls arose. Inevitably, the focus on shopping and entertainment moved from downtown to the suburban shopping complex, with its air conditioning and array of restaurants. In the 1970s, cable television and home video cassette rentals kept people home with at-your-fingertip convenience.
By 1987, drive-ins in Florida numbered 42; that has shrunk to 16, according to recent estimates.
Don Weidenkopf's store, All Star Video, stands near the spot in the Tyrone area where the Garden Theater used to operate many years ago. People now rent videos in stores like his, he says, "to get away from the bugs and into the air conditioning." But, he admits, a drive-in is "a good place to take a date."
The 28th Street Drive-In Theater was built in 1950, and its decline is evident: Vandals have managed to shimmy up the back of the wide screen and spray paint symbols on its rusty metal posts. The original neon sign at the entryway is in disrepair; weeds thrive near the fence that separates the theater from the mobile-home community next door.
Attendance is down from the theater's heyday. On one particular weeknight, only a handful of patrons were present to view a doubleheader of James Bond and martial arts thrillers. A late afternoon rain shower likely deterred some folks from showing up, Mazzola says. Weekends usually are better with around 100 cars turning up to see second-run movies.
"But we have regular (customers) and we'll show the movie raining or not," Mazzola says.
Relief manager James "Mac" McDannold, a Floyd Theater employee for 44 years, has been with 28th Street since its inception, and remembers the days when the theater held square dances and had a petting zoo on the premises. The 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde was the all-time biggest draw the theater has seen, he says.
Denise Hilliard, 31, of St. Petersburg, recently entertained some out-of-town guests at the theater one evening. "If they close it, it's history lost," she says. "It's the end of an era." Hilliard brought her 3-year-old daughter, Ayla, and a pile of pillows and blankets, and camped out on the drive-in's grass and gravel viewing area.
Hilliard says she prefers the nostalgic feel of a drive-in as well as the freedom to relax. "I've been to all of the (former) drive-ins in the area. With a walk-in theater, there's no personal touch," she says. Her guests, visiting from Ridge Top, Tenn., agree.
"This is perfect for families," says Brenda Rodgers, sitting comfortably in a lawn chair. "We all need to get back to basics. (People are) always complaining about saving money."
With 28th Street's how-can-you-beat-this-deal of $5 per carload admission, opposed to a multiplex's admission of around $6 to $9 per person, the entertainment value is obvious.
The decline of drive-ins is due to the break up of the family, says Mark Bialek, president of Drive-In Theater Fanatics Club, based in Baltimore.
"Most drive-ins were geared toward families, with the playgrounds, and not having to get a babysitter. It is more or less a novelty that wore off," says Bialek, who started the 150-member club in 1993 to preserve the memories of the era of open-air movies.
"Some of the owners didn't have the flair to keep (drive-ins) open," Bialek says. "They lost it in the '60s and '70s. But now people are starting to look back fondly on things."
As pink clouds moved silently across the sky, a few more cars of people showed up mid-film to secure a spot for the next half of the doubleheader. Breezes blew gently, drifting the film's soundtrack throughout the car park. Dawn Carter sat on a blanket with her husband Mike, while their 3-year-old daughter Mikayla, in her pajamas, prepared to settle in for the night. A bright quarter moon vied with the film for attention.
"I can't believe they'd close this," Mrs. Carter says. "This is beautiful."
The 28th Street Drive-In Theater is no longer open, though it is still standing.
Originally published by the St. Petersburg Times.
www.drive-ins-com: This very complete site offers news, memories, features, directories, and links to the online afterlife of drive-in theaters.
www.americandrivein.com: The official site of the documentary film, Drive-In Movie Memories.