THE SACO DRIVE-IN
By Richard Julio
No one is certain as to the exact birthdate of the first outdoor movie, but it is quite sure that the first open-air show occurred very early on in the history of film making. Before the advent of the 'talkies', silent films were shown outdoors on small screens facing a few rows of benches. There may or may not have been musical accompaniment, as many of these shows were informal backyard neighborhood affairs. By 1930, one such backyard exhibitor was Richard M. Hollingshead, Jr., a 30 year old manager of his father's auto parts store. Hollingshead tinkered with the notion of mounting a 1928 Kodak projector to the hood of his car, and projecting the show onto a white sheet as a makeshift screen. Maybe his fascination with the open air theater goes back to his teen years at Ebbet's Field, New York, where in 1914 Marcus Loew had put on an exhibition of 'Wrath Of The Gods' to boost WWI spirits. The event was overwhelmed by the attendance of more than 21,000 people. Americans loved the great outdoors as much as they loved the movies. Richard Hollingshead perfected his outdoor exhibitions by experimenting and placing a large radio speaker behind the screen to broadcast sound. In driveway tests with neighbors, he noticed that cars parking closely behind each other were not able to see the entire screen. He solved this problem by spacing the rows of cars at precise distances, and elevating the front wheels with wooden blocks to adjust the angles for optimum viewing. In an open lot, mounds of dirt & gravel were built up into ramps, or 'burms' to facilitate the viewing, and this innovation became the basis for his 1933 patent. Thus, the first Drive-in Theater was designed and built by inventor Richard Hollingshead, listed as #92 out of the one hundred most influential people in the history of the movies. He got the show on the road, so to speak, by opening the Camden Drive-in Theater in Camden New Jersey on June 6, 1933. Their first show that night was "Wife Beware". Admission, 25 cents.
List of Drive-in Theaters Started 1933-1939
Drive-in Theatre: Camden, New Jersey. June 6, 1933 Shankweiler's Auto Park: Orefield, Pennsylvania. April 15, 1934 Drive-in Short Reel Theater: Galveston, Texas. July 5, 1934 Pico: Los Angeles, California. September 9, 1934 Weymouth Drive-in Theatre: Weymouth, Mass. May 6, 1936 Starlight Auto Theatre: Akron, Ohio. Summer, 1937 Lynn Open Air Theater: Lynn, Massachusetts. July, 1937 Providence: Providence, Rhode Island. July 21, 1937 Miami Drive-in: Miami, Florida. February 25, 1938 Detroit Drive-in: Detroit, Michigan. June 2, 1938 Cleveland: Cleveland, Ohio. June, 1938 Shrewsbury Drive-in: Shrewsbury, Massachusetts. June, 1938 San-Val: Burbank, California. June 10, 1938 Merrimack Auto Theatre: Methuen, Massachusetts. Summer, 1938 Valley Stream: Long Island, New York. August 10, 1938 Corpus Christi: Corpus Christi, Texas. March, 1939 Saco Drive-in: Saco, Maine. July 15, 1939 Atlantic Drive-in: Jacksonville, Florida. December 6, 1939
BRIEF HISTORY OF THE SACO DRIVE-IN
The Saco Drive-in is located on US Route One, "The Avenue Of America", and was billed as "The Showplace Of Maine" by its founder, Eugene V. Boragine. Ground was broken in 1938, and the Saco Drive-in opened its gates for the first time on July 15, 1939 with a showing of "Forbidden Music", starring Jimmy Durante. Children under twelve were admitted free, while all others paid thirty-five cents. Opening ads proclaimed it as "Maine's first open-air automobile theatre. Avoid parking troubles. Sit in your own car and enjoy the talkies. Motor in anytime after 7 PM". The Saco Drive-in is not only the first drive-in built in Maine, and the 17th drive-in ever built, and has enjoyed its status as the 2nd oldest drive-in in the nation!
The Saco Open Air Automobile Theatre, also known as The Auto Drive-in, changed its name to The Saco Drive-in in the 1950s. At its peak during the 1950's Maine had a total of 36 drive-ins operating, but only 5 of those were still in operation by 1999, and there are even less than that today. Originally, speakers were placed around the theater and patrons had to leave their car windows open to hear the movie. Car speakers with individual volume control were patented in 1941, but production was delayed until 1946 because of World War II. Things have changed quite a bit since then. In the summer of 1998, The Saco Drive-in began broadcasting in stereo over FM radio, making car window speakers a thing of the past. In 2014, after 75 consecutive years of running film, the Saco Drive-In updated to digital projection, allowing it to stay competitive in acquiring the latest titles for summer visitors.
This photo shows the Saco Drive-in in 1960, playing the feature first, "Mountain Road" starring James Stewart. The co-hit "Tarzan The Ape Man" is in Technicolor from 1959. The back of the screen says: Saco Open Air Automobile Theater. Today, the trees are fully grown, making it difficult to see the back of the screen. The elaborate short concrete walled gardens & marquee from 1939 have given way to the widening of US Rt. 1. However, the 'teardrop' concrete bases on the speaker posts remain in evidence, as well as some nifty porcelain-enameled downlights nestled within the trees. Some general maintenance will bring the theater back to its former glory.
ONE OF THE MANY STORIES FROM THE SACO DRIVE-IN
During the summer of 1967 a Canadian Judge came to the drive-in in his brand new 1967 Oldsmobile Toronado. Projectionist Hugh L. Howard (1966-1970) was watching the credits going by at the end of movie, when he saw headlights coming his way from over the ramps. He dove out of the way just as the car crashed through the fence and into the projection booth at full throttle!
The car ruined the #1 projector and sound amplifiers, and of course caused major building damage. No one was hurt, and the projectionist commented that he knew the movie was bad, but didn't think it warranted wrecking the projection booth! One of many interesting stories and happenings at the Saco Drive-in.
FOR MORE PICTURES OF THE SACO DRIVE-IN, CLICK HERE.
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