Movies Under the Finger Lakes Stars

Taking the family to the movies? Why not go in the comfort of the family car? If that sounds like an advertisement from the 1950s, it’s not. While drive-in movie theaters are less common than they once were, several survive and even thrive in the Finger Lakes area from mid-April to Labor Day each year. Today the big outdoor screens are attracting new generations of people eager for the opportunity to see what they’ve only heard their parents or grandparents reminisce about. For those who grew up in the ’50s and ’60s when drive-ins were at the peak of their popularity, they offer a nostalgic experience.

The Greatest Show on Earth
For Joe Murphy in Avoca (Steuben County) it was the gift of a movie camera one Christmas from his wife which fueled his love of movies, prompting him to build the Bath Drive-In in 1949. “He got so involved with the movies,” recalls daughter Joyce Wagner of Cohocton, “anything that had to do with filming. He even flew out to Chicago to see the first Cinemascope movie. He just got into it.”

A family vacation to Florida put them all on the silver screen. “Dad took us to Sarasota to see the filming of Cecil B. DeMille’s Greatest Show on Earth (released 1952) with Cornel Wilde, Charlton Heston, Jimmy Stewart, Dorothy Lamour, and Betty Hutton,” recounts Wagner, who easily ticks off all the big-name stars of the cast. “But when we got there we couldn’t get in because you had to be an extra to get on the lot,” she remembers.

Joe Murphy wasn’t deterred. He found a lady with a pass to get in whose husband was sick that day. “Our dad went in as her husband, and came back with a pass from Cornel Wilde to admit us onto the lot,” laughs Wagner. The family became extras all day, as part of the audience watching the circus perform under a hot Florida sun. But they weren’t prepared for what happened next.

“We are sitting in the stands and all of a sudden, we hear someone yelling, ‘Get that man out of the way; tell that man…CUT! CUT!’ and then this terrible scene. It was dad,” sighs Wagner with a smile. “He was down there with his movie camera, making his own movie, I guess. They had to shut down the filming to get dad off the set, and back up in the stands where he was supposed to be.”

Joe Murphy ran the Bath Drive-In until the 1960s when he leased it out after he opened a bowling alley. He took it back in 1988 and his daughters, Joyce Wagner and Janice Owens of Wheeler, continue to run it along with the bowling alley, both as seasonal operations. While Joe Murphy died not long ago, his great-grandchildren are the newest generation involved in the business and it’s likely there will be movies shown under the stars in Bath by his descendants for some time.

No Babysitter Needed
From Avon to Auburn, Bath to Elmira, a drive-in movie theater is still within an hour’s drive for residents of the Finger Lakes region. In this area of New York State there were once over 100 drive-ins or “ozoners” as they are called. While the first drive-in originated in the 1930s in New Jersey, it was not until after World War II that the theaters experienced the biggest growth period. Nationwide there were less than 1,000 in 1948, but by 1958 nearly 5,000, due in part to America’s love of both cars and movies. They were usually built on undeveloped land on highways at the edge of towns and smaller cities. Three of the four drive-in theaters still operating today in the 14-county Finger Lakes region were built during this boom construction period.

The drive-in clientele and movies have changed over the years. Through the 1950s, drive-ins catered to families. It was cheaper to go to the drive-in than to hire a babysitter, and kids didn’t disrupt others as they might at an indoor theater. Playgrounds, located between the row of cars and the screen, became common attractions to entertain kids before the movie. “The drive-in playground soon became an integral part of the successful theater,” according to Don and Susan Sanders who wrote The American Drive-in Movie Theater, a well-illustrated and detailed history.

Drive-ins attracted teenagers beginning in the 1950s, when they started going to the drive-in on their own. They had money and cars, and drive-ins were a great place to hang out away from their parents. They packed cars (and trucks) to get as many friends into the movies as possible. During the 1960s, drive-ins showed teenage beach and surfing movies, such as those starring Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon, as well as science fiction and horror genres. Many were produced by the motion picture company, American International Pictures (AIP) and today are considered drive-in classics.

Drive-ins were an easy place for couples to date and earned the reputation as “passion pits.” Joyce Wagner of the Bath Drive-In recalls how they dealt with overly amorous couples. “Dad had his ‘Passion Patrol.’ He hired a guy that went around to make sure all heads were showing.” A tap on the car window would alert the couple. Wagner says they still keep a sharp eye to this day at the Bath Drive-In.

The popularity of drive-ins has been challenged over the years. They’ve faced new competition from television, then VCRs, cable and the transformation of indoor theaters into multiplexes. Some say daylight savings time, adopted in the 1960s hurt the drive-ins because it meant movies began at a later hour. The outdoor theater business, located on the older routes, also suffered when new Interstate highways were built.

Eventually the property drive-ins were built on increased in value with the growth of cities and shopping malls. A drive-in owner could make more by selling his prime real estate to a developer than by running a seasonal operation. By the 1980s, the drive-ins were disappearing from the landscape at an alarming rate.

By the 1990s, the attrition rate slowed. Some theaters were still closing, but others added screens and some were reopened. A few new drive-ins were built, including one right here in the Finger Lakes, perhaps signaling a revival, and a renewed dedication to the American icon.

From Ushers to Owners
In Cayuga County, Auburn resident Paul Field, now 89, spent over 50 years in the movie business, beginning during the Depression. “I started in 1931 carrying a flashlight as an usher, earning 25 cents per hour,” Field recalls. Field needed a job and says he fell into the business, rising from usher to manager and ultimately to owner. He also spent many years in Rochester and Syracuse theaters. At one time in Auburn he owned the Finger Lakes Drive-In and the East Drive-In (since gone), as well as the Palace, an indoor theater.

The Finger Lakes Drive-In’s current owner, Kevin Mullin, met his wife Cindy at an indoor theater over 30 years ago in Rutland, Vermont. She was selling tickets and he was ushering at age 17 for $2.00 an hour. This year will be Mullin’s seventh season as owner of the Finger Lakes Drive-In, having bought Auburn’s only remaining drive-in from the widow of the previous owner in 1997.

Mullin became familiar with the Finger Lakes area when he was employed by Cinema North Corporation, a regional chain which operates multiplex cinemas. He built theaters in Painted Post, Canandaigua, Massena, and Oneida. When he bought Auburn’s drive-in, he already owned an indoor theater in the city. “I bought the drive-in to preserve a piece of Americana and to capitalize on a nostalgic source of family fun,” explains Mullin.

“We got people every night from as far away as Syracuse and Ithaca,” he explains. “We received calls, especially from grandparents, who wanted to share the experience with their grandchildren. There’s amazing ‘chit chat’ at the (ticket) booth,” says Mullin, who personally staffs the booth when he is in town. Mullin is a Vermont state legislator and also the owner of Vermont Roots, a company which distributes Vermont-made products.

Mullin remembers drive-in playgrounds, merry-go-rounds, and swings, but admits that insurance makes having rides prohibitively expensive today. Paul Field operated a circus train to entertain the kids in the 1970s when he owned “The East” in Auburn. Field’s train appears to be the “Miracle Circus Train” pictured in Don and Susan Sanders’ book.

The Finger Lakes Drive-In once had high volume speakers, but the sound reportedly bothered cows in the area. This problem was common to drive-ins generally and solved by the invention of small speakers attached to posts between the parked cars which could be hung on the car window. Today the Finger Lakes Drive-In still has speakers on poles which are kept in good working order by 16-year old Brett Mullin, Kevin and Cindy’s oldest son who admits he loves spending summers at the drive-in.

At the Elmira and Bath Drive-Ins the speakers are gone now, but the poles remain and are helpful in showing people where to park. “I am sure they would be parked sideways if they could because they bring in couches and mattresses in the back of their trucks,” laughs Janice Owens of Bath. “They bring their lawn chairs, the loungers, you name it. It’s like an outdoor picnic.”

“Quite some ritzy place”
Among the Finger Lakes ozoners that have disappeared is the Dryden Drive-In Theater on Route 13, the Ithaca-Cortland Road. At its grand opening on June 8, 1949, the double feature was Bad Men from Missouri (1941) starring Jane Wyman and That Hagan Girl (1947) featuring a teenage Shirley Temple. Largely forgotten today and judging by their pre-1949 dates, neither movie was “first-run” when shown at the Dryden. A local paper, Rural News, documented the construction of the Dryden:

“…that place is a real bee hive of activity. Gravel is being taken from the Prince farm to serve as a top dressing for the terraces. Then a hard surface will be added. The neon sign has been erected, a new metal screen has been erected to replace the wooden one that was blown down last winter. A long metal fence is being erected across the back, but it will take a high one to hide the huge screen. With the installation of the posts and individual microphones it will be quite some ritzy place. Will they have a windshield wiping service as you enter or should you visit Dewey Whitford [’s Garage] next door first?”

From the East Avon Downs to the Vintage Drive-In
In the 1960s, a harness racing track off Route 15 in Livingston County, the East Avon Downs, was located just north of Route 5 and 20. In the 1970s it was converted into a successful flea market. Beginning in late April, vendors eager to sell wares and shoppers just as eager for a bargain meet every Sunday. Rochester-native Paul Dean, 45, who has owned the 23-acre property with flea market for 12 years, saw an opportunity. With the outdoor market only operating six months a year, and located about 15 miles from Rochester where all the drive-ins were gone, adding a drive-in to the undeveloped portion of the East Avon property had merit. So in 1997, Dean opened the Vintage Drive-In, attracting national media attention in the process.

According to Avon town historian Maureen Kingston, the Vintage Drive-In is Avon’s first. Closest was the Conesus Drive-In in Lakeville, where she remembers they made “the best popcorn in the world.” There was also the Starlite Drive-In on Route 15, closer to Rochester, a theater Dean remembers frequenting.

Dean, who also owns the Elmwood Inn in Rochester, says when it came to building the Vintage, he did get help from the owner of the Transit Drive-In which still operates in Lockport. “It wasn’t that difficult a job,” says Dean of the three-screen drive-in with adjacent concession stand and 18-hole miniature golf course. “We acted as our own general contractors. We did have an architect that provided a drawing and site plan. Everything else we contracted out ourselves,” recalls Dean.

At the Vintage Drive-In there are none of the ramps for cars familiar to the older drive-ins because to install them would have increased the building cost substantially. “Generally the line of sight is pretty good because our screens aren’t that high,” explains Dean. “The older drive-ins have screens that are 60-65 feet high. In those cases, ramps would have been more necessary. Because the size of our screens are smaller, we didn’t need to do it.”

Over the years the older Finger Lakes drive-ins have needed to repair and upgrade their screens and sound systems to keep their operations profitable. In 2000, a second screen was added to the 50-year old Elmira Drive-In on Route 352 in Big Flats, southeast of Corning (Chemung County). They also did an overall remodeling of the concession stand and restrooms, and improved the sound system. The owner of the theater for the past 15 years has been Conrad Zurich of Fayetteville. Zurich admits, “Even though people enjoy going to drive-ins, the amount of acreage required makes it cost prohibitive in most areas. Many locations are better suited for commercial development.”

New generations of young movie fans
There are numerous Web sites devoted to drive-ins on the Internet keeping alive the interest in ozoners. They offer databases with state-by-state listings of currently operating and former drive-ins (complete with photos), links to other drive-in Web sites, and even a fan club. There is also a Web site for anyone who wants to build their own drive-in.

What’s unique about today’s drive-in? Paul Dean says he thinks it’s the presentation. “It is better than it used to be way back then. It’s been helped by newer technology and better bulbs,”explains Dean. “When I used to go the drive-in I remember the sound wasn’t very good and the picture wasn’t very good. That’s one thing I pride myself in is making sure it’s a quality presentation. We have a nice bright picture and nice clear sound.”

The drive-in experience is still alive in the Finger Lakes. In New Jersey where drive-ins began, sadly none are left. “Last year a man called us from New Jersey and said he was going to bring his daughter up for vacation to Upstate New York. He had gotten a place on Keuka Lake and wanted her to see a drive-in theater,” relates Bath’s Janice Owens.

“It’s in the small towns across the country that the drive-ins really seem to feel at home,” write the Sanders. Drive-in theaters offer a bargain for families, showing two first-run features for the price of one with most admitting younger children free of charge. All the drive-ins in the Finger Lakes have concession stands with the usual wide variety of fast foods. At Avon and Auburn they even show classic short films from the 1950s at intermission.

“Most parents and grandparents remember the fun they had as kids at the drive-in and want to pass the experience on to new generations of young movie fans,” says Kevin Mullin.

Maybe the Finger Lakes area is the ideal setting to wait for the sun to set to sample a piece of Americana.
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To learn more about Drive-Ins:

The American Drive-in Movie Theater
Don & Susan Sanders (Motorbooks, 1997)

Drive-In Movie Memories
Don & Susan Sanders
(Carriage House, 2000)

Drive-In Theaters. A History from Their Inception in 1933
Kerry Seagrave
(McFarland & Co., Inc., 1992)

Society for Commercial Archaeology
(SCA) at www.sca-roadside.org
Those interested in drive-ins can join the oldest national organization devoted to the 20th century commercially built environment and cultural landscapes of North America. Established in 1977, the Society emphasizes the impact of the automobile and the commercial process. It offers publications, conferences and tours to help preserve and document architecture of the 20th century, such as diners, highways, gas stations, drive-in theaters, bus stations, tourist courts, and neon signs.

Websites:
www.drive-ins.com
www.driveintheater.com
www.driveinworkshop.com
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Where to go for a Finger Lakes drive-in experience:

Bath Drive-In
Rt. 415 S. (old Rt. 15)
Bath (Steuben County)
Tel: 607-776-3191

Elmira Drive-In
Rt. 352 (south of Corning)
Big Flats (Chemung County)
Tel: 607-734-8599

Finger Lakes Drive-In
Routes 5 & 20 (Clark St. Rd.)
Aurellius (Cayuga County, 5 miles west of Auburn)
Tel: 315-525-3969

Vintage Drive-In
1520 W. Henrietta Rd. (Rt. 15 north of 5 & 20)
Avon (Livingston County)
Tel: 585-226-9290


by Laurel C. Wemett
Laurel Wemett is a correspondent for the Messenger-Post newspapers in Canandaigua. She owns a gift shop named Cat’s in the Kitchen and lives in Canandaigua.