photographs by vance lauderdale
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Dear Vance: In the November issue, you wrote about the old Summer Drive-In, so I hope you can settle an argument. Where was the Bellevue Drive-In, and what happened to it? — S.W., Memphis.
Dear S.W.: Drive-in movie theaters have always held a special fascination for me, though as a Lauderdale, I was rarely allowed to visit them. Not to avoid the commoners, as you might think, but because the sheer size of our Daimler-Benz limousine meant we had to pay double-price, and nobody who parked behind us could see the screen.
But the whole concept seems uniquely American, doesn’t it? — a perfect blend of our love affair with the automobile, our fascination with the glories of Hollywood, and the happy camaraderie of the neighborhood snackbar. And let’s not forget the gadgets, such as the pole-mounted speakers (and later, heaters).
I can’t remember who came up with this concept, but by the 1950s every major city in America had at least one drive-in, and by the 1960s, Memphis had almost a dozen of them, all over town. A movie page from a 1967 Press-Scimitar lists not only the Bellevue, but the Sky-Vue, Summer, Frayser, Lamar, Jaxon, Sixty-One, and others. Close to Millington was the Ellis, and West Memphis had the Sunset.
Let me just say that even though drive-ins developed a somewhat sordid reputation, what with all that back-seat hanky-panky, the Memphis theaters featured pretty tame fare. That same newspaper ad announced that the Sky-Vue was airing The Professionals with Burt Lancaster, the Jaxon had How To Steal a Million with Audrey Hepburn, the Lamar was showing Follow Me Boys with Fred McMurray, and … you get the picture.
Across the river was a different story. The Sunset offered patrons a double feature: Dragstrip Girl and Reform School Girl. And a few weeks later, while Memphis drive-ins were still showing Disney flicks, the Sunset promoted a “Battle of the Sexes” — a double helping of Mademoiselle Strip Tease with Brigitte Bardot (“witty, wicked, and wonderful, as only the French can dare”) and Scandal in Sorrento with Sophia Loren (“a spicy sizzler”). To entice viewers, the Sunset even listed the measurements of the two stars, and reassured patrons, “Both Features in Spoken English,” as if that mattered.
But back to the Bellevue. Sorry! This fancy drive-in opened in the early 1950s, another in a chain of theaters owned by Holiday Inns founder Kemmons Wilson. The address was 2350 South Bellevue. Typical of many drive-ins of that era, the back of the screen served as a colorfully decorated and highly visible billboard for the theatre — essentially the marquee for the establishment. The Bellevue’s sign was especially nice because that cursive script and the fancy decorations were all in neon, and the wide vertical bands are a nice touch. The rather grainy picture shown here was taken (by me) long after it had closed, but you still get a sense of how nice it once looked.
A fellow named William S. Scott served as the manager of the Bellevue, and what’s really interesting about these old drive-ins is that the manager often lived inside the screen! It’s true; often they would have a nice little apartment installed at the base of the screen, and that’s where Scott lived. It must have been a rather surreal existence. He probably had every line and every scene in every single movie memorized.
From what I’ve been told by friends who patronized this establishment, the Bellevue was also unusual because the concession stand was also located in the base of the screen, unlike other drive-ins, which combined the snack bar with the projection booth way out in the middle of the parking lot. But the Bellevue also had a little playground for the kiddies right in front of the screen, too, so this kept everybody in one place.
The fine-looking Bellevue stood like this, abandoned and neglected, for years. I want to say a windstorm later blew down what was left of the screen, but I may have that confused with the Lamar Drive-In, which suffered a similar fate as this one.
New Hope Missionary Baptist Church stands on the site today, S.W., if that helps you settle your argument. Sometimes if you use Google or Bing to look at aerial views of old drive-in theater locations, you can still see traces of the fan-shaped rows where the cars parked, but not here. Whoever built the church did a nice job grading the lot. Not a trace remains of the old theater.