A Newspaper Ad for Memphis' First Drive-In Movie Theater?



In our November issue, I tell the story of the old, and original, Summer Drive-In, which opened in 1948 at the corner of Summer and White Station. I'd tell you more, but I certainly expect you to buy the magazine and read the article, dang it all.

Anyway, I implied that this might have been our city's first drive-in movie theater, though I had always suspected that the Lamar Drive-In actually preceded the one on Summer.

But where was the proof?

Well, I finally found it when, alone in the Lauderdale Mansion Library one night this week, I was looking over a July 3, 1940, edition of the Memphis Press-Scimitar (it's true!) and noticed the tiny ad you see here. Back then, the newspapers would devote an entire page to their movie listings, so this two-inch notice didn't jump right out at me, but there it is — announcing the 1939 film Man of Conquest, described as the "Story of Sam Houston," and starring Richard Dix and Joan Fontaine.

What's interesting — well, to me anyway — is that the ad didn't bother mentioning the actual name of the drive-in, which tells me it was the only such venue in town. And we are left to infer that it is indeed the Lamar by the directions printed at the bottom —"1/2 mile south of city limits on Lamar Avenue." And gosh, look at the prices: 10 cents for children and 30 cents for adults. And — this really makes no sense to me — cars get in free. Gosh, that's pretty generous of them, for a drive-in and all.

The movie posters for Man of Conquest described it as "Adventure Beyond Daring!" So too, do many tales of my own life.

Though drive-ins, then and now, didn't always show the top-rated films, this was a pretty big movie in its day, produced by Republic Pictures and featuring some of its biggest stars. Dix, who had a movie career spanning more than 20 years, was considered a leading man by Hollywood standards, and a quick check of the Internet Movie Database shows that he also starred in a mostly forgotten mystery series as a character known as the Whistler, with such compelling titles as The Whistler, The Mark of the Whistler, The Power of the Whistler, and even The Secret of the Whistler.

Co-star Joan Fontaine, the younger sister of Olivia de Havilland, was a star in her own right, and in fact, the movie ad refers to "Rebecca" but that's not her role in the Sam Houston movie, but the 1940 film that earned her an Oscar nomination.

And since I'm just plagiarizing imdb.com here, I might as well mention that Man of Conquest is also  noteworthy because "it was Edith Head's first credit as a costume designer." And it all started with Sam Houston!

Finally, I'll tell you that Man of Conquest must have been a tough film on everyone involved. The director had to be hospitalized, and even replaced when he didn't recover soon enough, and star Richard Dix broke two bones "during the wrestling scene."

Wrestling scene?

Reader Comments:
Nov 28, 2012 03:21 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

> he also starred in a mostly forgotten mystery
> series as a character known as the Whistler,

Forgotten by whom? The Whistler was a huge success on radio, so much so that it inspired the popular (if low-budget) film series, and plenty of old-movie buffs remember the series very well.

The Whistler pictures show up on TCM frequently, and they hold up just fine for "B" thrillers.

What's more, though Dix appeared in all but the last of the Whistler pictures, he didn't play the Whistler, a narrator character that was seen only in shadows. Dix was cast as the protagonist in each of those pictures, playing a different character in each.

Step it up, Mr. Lauderdale; your readers deserve better.

Nov 28, 2012 04:55 pm
 Posted by  Vance Lauderdale

If the Lauderdale Mansion had cable, or a working television, or even 110-volt electricity for that matter, perhaps I would be more familiar with the old shows aired on TCM.

And you wouldn't BELIEVE the angry letters I got from members of the Edith Head Fan Club, who castigated me for not talking more about her work in this post, which was supposed to be about the Lamar Drive-in, but drifted off-topic and then caused all sorts of trouble. Is it any wonder that I drown my sorrows in Kentucky Nip, night after night?

Nov 29, 2012 11:54 am
 Posted by  producerbonnie

Excellent response, Mr. Lauderdale. :)

Nov 29, 2012 11:56 am
 Posted by  producerbonnie

And I had never heard of Richard Dix, but now I suspect he inspired a line in the movie "Blazing Saddles": "Our ancestors fought Indians, fought locusts, fought Dix --- remember when Richard Dix tried to take over this town?"

Dec 4, 2012 11:40 am
 Posted by  Anonymous

IIRC, I helped a friend and his father scavenge an awning from the rubble of the Lamar Drive-In, that was then placed on the side of their house off Getwell. For all I know, it's still there.

Of course, my memories of that time (about 1971?) are highly suspect.

Dec 4, 2012 09:37 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

Wow...

Dec 8, 2012 08:45 pm
 Posted by  sookiebelle

After they built the Treasury, ya know, squiggly roof? Anyhoo, the parking lot was really big. We could park there and watch the movies at Lamar Drive-in. Couldn't hear the dialogue too well but hey...what cha want for nothing, ya know? And best I remember, those kinda movies didn't really HAFTA have lines. Know what I mean?

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Ask Vance is the blog of Vance Lauderdale, the award-winning columnist of Memphis magazine and MBQ: Inside Memphis Business.  Vance is the author of three books: Ask Vance: The Best Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History and Trivia Expert (2003), as well as Ask Vance: More Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History Expert (2011) and Vance Lauderdale's Lost Memphis (2013). He is also the recipient of quite a few nice awards, the creator of several eye-catching wall calendars, and the only person we know with a vintage shock-treatment machine in his den. 

You can find him from time to time in the pages of the Memphis Flyer and MBQ, on WKNO television, and on Facebook. When he is not exploring the highways and byways of Memphis, he spends his time sleeping, napping, and dozing.

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