The Summer Drive-In
photograph of drive-in courtesy of Balton Sign Company
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Dear Vance: Please help settle a disagreement I’m having with my mother. I said the Summer Drive-In was on the west side of the expressway, and she said it has always been where it is now, on the east. Please help us out on this. — d.e.
Dear D.E.: This presents an awkward situation. Do you still live at home? Is your mother providing you with an allowance, or cooking your meals, or buying your clothing? Because once I denounce her in the pages of this magazine, she may toss you out on the street, and don’t think for a minute that you can show up at the gates of the Lauderdale Mansion, begging for food and blaming me for your predicament.
Your mother is wrong. The original Summer Drive-In was located west of the present-day Interstate. But keep in mind that wasn’t even a consideration when it first opened, because the expressway that circles our city came almost a decade after the drive-in.
Here’s the story. A Memphis Press-Scimitar article from August 28, 1948, announced that a “deluxe drive-in movie” would open soon “on Summer Avenue, two miles beyond the city limits.” White Station (or as it’s often shown on old maps, Bartlett Road) was considered way out in the country at the time, but this was a good location, on one of the major highways leading into (and out of) town.
One of the owners was none other than Kemmons Wilson, of Holiday Inns fame. But his world-famous hotel chain didn’t even exist yet; the very first one opened down the street in 1952. In his teens Wilson sold popcorn machines to movie theaters, so it makes sense that he would get involved in one of our city’s first drive-in movies.
As you can see in this photo taken shortly after opening in 1948, it was a snazzy-looking place. Balton Sign Company constructed the “$12,000 marquee, blazing with two miles of neon tubing, and said to be the largest in the South.” For that matter, the drive-in itself, capable of holding 670 cars, was second in size only to an 880-car theater in Dallas.
Ever the entrepreneur, Wilson and his co-owner, a fellow named Lou Weaver, added unusual features. For one thing, he mounted little red lights on the poles that held the speakers. While watching River Lady, starring Yvonne DeCarlo, just press a button to switch on that light, and “a concession boy will trundle up his pushcart with cold soft drinks, watermelon, or to warm the baby’s formula.”
Even more remarkable — especially for a facility that, at least in those days, was mainly used in the summer — was a huge ice-skating rink. “The large circular area in front of the 54 x 60-foot screen will be paved in concrete, laced with copper coils for freezing the water with which it will be flooded.”
I have talked with many folks who visited the old Summer Drive-In, and nobody remembers a ice-skating rink, so it’s possible this feature was never completed. (The 1948 newspaper article says, “Inability to get the ice-making equipment has postponed the rink until next year.”) And all those skaters swarming around in front of the screen, flailing their arms and flopping on the ice, seems like an annoying distraction to me.
Even without the rink, the Summer Drive-In was a hit from the day it opened, and on weekend nights, cars would line Summer Avenue bumper-to-bumper, waiting to turn into the double entrance. I managed to turn up an aerial photo of the place, taken in 1956. The developers moved a half-million tons of dirt to create rows of ramps, “angled upwards so that cars driving in front of a line will not obscure the vision from those that are parked.” Wilson and his partners seem to have thought of everything.
The Summer Drive-In stayed in business here until 1966, when the property was sold to developers for a new Hoehn Chevrolet dealership. As I recall, that never happened. Instead, most people remember that corner as home to Kmart for many years. Today a shopping center, anchored by Northern Tools, occupies the site of the old drive-in.
In 1966, the Malco Summer Twin opened farther east on Summer. Many people, including your mother, D.E., seem to have forgotten the original Summer Drive-In, and that’s a shame, because just look at that nice entrance. I wonder what they did with all that great neon?