Entertaining Dodge City
The South Drive-In celebrates sixty-four year of movie history
by Don Steele
Sometimes an idea hatches in the most unlikely circumstances.
During World War II, people who worked in hatcheries were considered an important part of the war effort on the home front. So they were "locked" until the war ended, unable to join the military even if they wanted to.
That's the situation Glen Cooper found himself in.
Cooper Hatchery, run by Glen's parents, was located on South Second Avenue in Dodge City, in the building now famous as Glen's Barber Shop.
When young Glen Cooper drove a load of turkeys to California, he saw a lot of new things. One new thing in particular stuck in his mind: an outdoor movie theater where you could sit in your car, with your own speaker hanging from your rolled-down window, and enjoy the latest Hollywood creation on a huge screen.
Young Glen thought the folks of Dodge City might enjoy the drive-in experience, so when he got home, he bought some land south of town and built the South Drive-In, which opened in 1947.
Cooper and his wife, Roma Loi, rode the wave of drive-in popularity near the crest, flying to Hollywood in their private plane to bring movie stars to town, creating elaborate floats for the Boot Hill Fiesta parade, and constantly expanding the menu in the snack bar.
In the late 1950s, concerned that there might be room in the local entertainment market for a competitor, they built their second drive-in theater, the Boot Hill Drive-In west of town.
Eventually, the Coopers had drive-ins in Garden City and Hays, as well as the Dodge Theater in downtown Dodge City, and the Cinema Circle, which operated from the early 1970s into the new century.
When their son, Ron, finished high school and military service, he moved to Hays to manage the theater. There he met his wife, Pam, and when Glen died, Ron and Pam moved back to Dodge to take over the operation.
They were part of a show business craze. By the early 1960s, there were over 4,000 drive-in's across America.
This summer, the website Drive-Ins.com lists only seven operating drive-ins in Kansas.
The early days and some improvements:
The early drive-in theaters utilized projection equipment from indoor movie theaters.
That led to some unexpected problems, according to Ron Cooper.
"The indoor projectors were designed to operate from a projection booth that was high at the back of the theater, pointing down toward the screen. So they had the oil reservoir in the front. At a drive-in, the projector is at ground level and pointing up toward the screen, so all the oil ran to the wrong end. They had to design a reservoir at the back and pump the oil forward."
The light source in early projectors was carbon arc. An intense light was produced by running electrical current through carbon rods and allowing the spark to arc across a small gap. The technology was borrowed from spotlights used in theaters and it's still used in search lights.
As technology improved, someone found a way to encapsulate xenon gas in a crystal bulb, creating intense light without burning up the electrode.
The South Drive-In now uses 4,000 watt xenon bulbs, but they still run a 35 millimeter film print through their vintage projector.
"That projector was installed in the mid-50s, so it's going on 60 years," Cooper said.
With as many as 600 cars parked in rows at the South Drive-In to enjoy the movie, sound was another problem. Early drive-ins experimented with big speakers mounted on towers near the screen, or in pickup beds. Then they tried rows of speakers mounted in front of each row of cars. Finally they settled on individual speakers hanging on posts beside each car, which you could hang inside your car window.
"I remember the whole family would sit around and build those speakers," Cooper said. "They were pretty primitive."
And moviegoers had a tendency to forget about the speaker while trying to beat traffic exiting after the movie. More than a few speakers either damaged car windows or pulled their wire right out of the post and left with the hasty family.
When automobiles began to include stereo radio as a standard feature, drive-ins installed low power radio transmitters and each car could tune in the soundtrack on its own speakers. That solved the problem.
Food was an important component of the drive-in experience from the beginning. The Coopers started with hamburgers and hot dogs, along with popcorn and soda pop, the usual movie fare.
But Roma Loi was in charge of the concession stand and she wasn't content to keep things the same. She expanded the snack menu every summer, adding deep fryers and eventually serving restaurant-style treats like shrimp dinners.
If you needed something from the snack bar but didn't want to miss any of the movie, you could turn on your park lights and a uniformed pop boy would come to your car, take your order then deliver it to you.
"We added pizza when that became popular," Ron said. "But mom and dad would never have imagined that we'd be selling water in plastic bottles."
Decline or resurgence?
At the height of the drive-in's popularity, the outdoor theaters enjoyed access to first-run movies from the studios.
"The studios and distributors control what movie we can show," Cooper said. "We have a booking agent in Dallas who juggles our schedule and negotiates for movies."
As drive-in attendance declined, studios favored the indoor theaters with first-run movies and only drive-ins located on the fringes of large cities had high enough attendance, yet were distant enough from the large indoor theaters, to earn the right to show first-run titles.
"Now that families are coming back to the drive-ins, it's easier to get those first-run shows," Cooper said.
Still, the scheduling of where the few available 35mm prints of a popular film will be sent is a day-by-day process.
"When people ask us why we don't always know what'll be playing next week, it's hard to explain," Cooper said.
But competition for scarce entertainment dollars is fierce and drive-ins hover on the brink of extinction.
"People should enjoy it while they can," Cooper said.
Daylight Saving Time has moved sunset back an hour, reducing usable evening darkness and pushing start times later.
And eventually studios will stop producing 35mm prints.
Most indoor theaters have converted to digital projection.
"That's a totally different technology," Cooper said. "It's more like a video projector."
Movies are sent to theaters on a disc or even downloaded directly to the projector, complete with automated run times.
"It would take around $80,000 to convert to that kind of projection at the drive-in," Cooper said. "Because the drive-in has a bigger screen and a longer throw."
And that would be an expense the drive-in couldn't absorb.
"We'd need a rich philanthropist who's in love with drive-ins, or some kind of grant to do that," Cooper said.
Meanwhile, the summer of 2011 has gone pretty well for the South Drive-In. They opened with the new Harry Potter movie, had Cowboys and Aliens, and showed Captain America.
They're going to have to repaint the screen before next summer, a maintenance project that happens every five years or so, but the Coopers have every intention of opening again for the 2012 season.
After all, they're in the business of making memories.