MARQUETTE, Mich. (AP) - Plowed under by an ever-building wave of technology, Marquette County’s once-popular three outdoor theaters reside in what’s known today as the drive-in theater “graveyard.”
The same is true for all of the Upper Peninsula’s drive-ins, which once totaled a dozen — spread out from Ironwood to Chassel to Munising to Sault Ste. Marie — the last of which closed in Manistique in 2001.
However, before the days of streaming video, digital film projectors, cable, VHS tapes and even widely-available color television, drive-in theaters were a growing phenomenon in America.
The country’s first drive-in opened near Camden, New Jersey, in June 1933, the creation of Richard M. Hollingshead, an auto products manufacturing plant manager who lived nearby.
Hollingshead sought to develop a business that wouldn’t weaken in the face of those devastating days of the Great Depression, The Mining Journal (https://bit.ly/1qEqZAA ) reported.
“He reasoned that the last things Americans would relinquish, even during economic hardship, were their cars and their movie-going habit,” author Harry Skrdla said in his book published this year, “Michigan’s Drive-In Theaters.” ”After experimenting with his family car, a 16-millimeter projector on its hood, and a sheet nailed between trees near his driveway, he decided it was a practical idea.”
Skrdla said the growth of drive-in theaters in Michigan generally followed a pattern exhibited nationwide.
“Drive-in construction continued until the beginning of World War II, when it came to a standstill. But afterward, driven by postwar recovery and the baby boom, it began to accelerate,” Skrdla wrote. “What had been a mere 100 drive-ins before the war, soared to 300 by 1947 and an astonishing 1,700 by 1950. By 1958, the United States had reached its peak with around 3,700 drive-ins.”
The first drive-in theater in Michigan opened north of Detroit in 1938. Skrdla said the highest number the state had operating at any one time was 134.
In the U.P., the first drive-in constructed was the Evergreen Drive-In Theatre in Marquette County, located six miles west of Ishpeming off U.S. 41.
The Evergreen’s grand opening was June 29, 1950, with a showing of “Johnny Holiday,” a 1949 motion picture starring William Bendix about a young street tough sent to a reform farm.
An advertisement touted the theater’s capacity of over 300 cars, a giant screen 50 feet tall and 45 feet wide, speakers in every car with “perfect sound,” ”modern restrooms” and “a modern snack bar, conveniently located for delicious food and soft drinks.”
In 1952, new drive-ins opened in Chassel (Hiawatha) and Ironwood (Ironwood).
The peak year for drive-in openings in the U.P. was 1953, when four new theaters began operating in Iron Mountain (Tri-City), Manistique (Highway Two), Sault Ste. Marie (Starlite) and Escanaba (Hilltop).
The following year, a new drive-in opened near Munising (Superior) and Evergreen Theatres Inc. — the same company operating the Evergreen Theatre west of Ishpeming — opened the Marquette Outdoor Theatre on Aug. 20, 1954.
The movie playing that night was the 1953 western thriller “Arrowhead,” starring Charlton Heston and Jack Palance. A grand opening was held four days later with a double bill, “Those Redheads from Seattle” and “The Girls of Pleasure Island.”
Popsicles were available for the “kiddies” and orchids for the ladies.
The Marquette Outdoor Theatre was built on 10 acres with room for 500 cars, a capacity that would rival Escanaba’s Hilltop Drive-In for tops in the U.P.
The theater was situated 700 feet south of the Midway on what was then U.S. 41 — Midway Drive today — and the current U.S. 41, which was being built that same year to provide a link between Ishpeming, Negaunee and Marquette via a “better, shorter and smoother highway.”
The screen stood 60 feet from the right-of-way for the new highway.
In 1955, another 500-car drive-in opened in Gladstone (Ken-Mar) and just two miles or so west of the Marquette Outdoor Theatre, the Airport Drive-In Theatre — advertising itself as “the finest outdoor theatre in the northwest” — held its grand opening on July 3.
Five days earlier, the new Airport Drive-In held an open house with “free popcorn for the kiddies”, “coffee and doughnuts for mother and dad” and a 60-minute cartoon carnival fun show. The 700-car capacity theater was the largest built in the U.P.
Shows playing during the grand opening were the “sea-raiding, sky-streaking thrill saga,” ”Flat Top” and “Smoke Signal,” with Dana Andrews and Piper Laurie.
In a full-page advertisement, management said: “The outdoor theatre is the utmost in relaxed informality. Come with the family, in casual clothes, and in a holiday mood - you’ll enjoy it more. This is family entertainment so feel free, always, to bring the kids.”
The theater had a playground for kids and fireworks every night after the second show. The concession snack bar had baby bottle warmers.
An article in The Mining Journal detailed the attributes of the new drive-in.
“The theater, located on the site of the old Marquette County Airport, is reported to be the most modern north of Milwaukee,” the paper said. “The 4,000 square-foot Manco-Vision Screen, supported by a framework that towers 70 feet high, is 100 feet wide.”
The concession building, which measured 90 feet by 90 feet, “houses an 80-foot snack bar, which is brightly-lighted, attractively decorated and designed to serve patrons without delay.”
The parking area contained 13 ramps pitched to allow perfect visibility for every customer. The latest Symplex projection equipment and a sound system provided by the National Theater Supply were used.
“Officials stated that the theater was constructed with the thought in mind to make it the most beautiful and modern in this part of the country,” the article read.
With the new Airport theater operating, the Marquette Outdoor Theatre nearby quietly closed after the following season on Sept. 23, 1956 — just over two years since it opened.
The titles of the last two pictures shown there — “Autumn Leaves” and “Red Sundown” — seemed to signal the goodbye, which was not advertised. Today, the place where the theater stood is in the area of businesses along U.S. 41 that includes Tractor Supply Co. and Charter Communications.
The last drive-in theater built in the U.P. opened in Lake Linden (Lakes) in 1957.
Through the 1960s and into the 1970s, the Airport and the Evergreen drive-ins continued to operate, but changing times and technology were catching up quickly, with increased popularity of television, limited current movie selection and the presidential reinstitution of daylight saving time nationally in the mid-1970s, pulling drive-in goers away.
Paul Florence, vice president of the Drive-In Theatre Corp. that owned the Airport Drive-In, said in a 1987 Mining Journal interview that the time change forced families with younger children to stay up later if they wanted to watch both shows.
“Then the movies changed,” Florence said. “The Ma and Pa Kettle deals changed and drive-ins started to be on the way out.”
By 1971, the Evergreen — like other drive-ins in some rural areas nationwide — had begun showing a mixture of mainstream and increasingly more X-rated movies. In response to complaints, the Ely Township Board instituted an obscenity ordinance in October 1977.
However, the board had to repeal the measure as unenforceable after 10 months because a Supreme Court ruling had dictated obscenity ordinances were to be drafted by the state Legislature.
The last movies shown at the Evergreen were on Aug. 31, 1986, and were “Sex Play” and “Punk Rock,” both rated XXX. On Sept. 3, a newspaper advertisement read, “Closed for the season. Thank you for your patronage. Have a joyous holiday season.”
In 1987, the once-mighty Airport Drive-In Theatre also closed after final showings of “Roxanne” and “The Untouchables” on Sept. 6.
One month later, Florence’s company sold the projection building, screen and entrance booth appraised at $40,000 for $20,000 to Marquette County. The county had leased 28 acres to the theater company since 1954 and it razed the drive-in for expanded development of an industrial park at the old airport.
The projection booth building was leased to Simmons Airlines.
In 1998, the 689 acres of airport property and the industrial park were sold to O’Dovero Enterprises and the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community for $1.8 million. Passenger air service moved to K.I. Sawyer in September 1999.
Today, the Airport and Evergreen drive-in properties remain undeveloped, with traces of their theater past remaining — speaker wires coming out of the ground, fallen pieces of movie screen and a cinder block projection building at the Evergreen and the concession building still standing at the Airport.
Meanwhile, Skrdla said a handful of Michigan drive-ins continue to exist downstate, while the number has dwindled to less than 350 nationwide.
Information from: The Mining Journal, https://www.miningjournal.net
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