Drive-In Theaters Still Making Memories

Aug 08, 2014

Kids young and old get excited as they pack their cars with lawn chairs and blankets to head off toward a night under the heavens to watch a movie. The concept is as American as it gets, with the first drive-in theater opening in June 1933 in New Jersey. By 1950 the invention made its way to the Mark Twain National Forest as Clark Davis from Ellington built the 21 Drive-in Theater. The theater is located 10 miles northeast of Van Buren, 16 miles west of Ellsinore and 16 miles south of Ellington along Highway 21, but that didn’t stop the crowds from coming out and enjoying this new way to watch the movies. Three years later, Mr. & Mrs. Jeffries, who owned a theater in Piedmont and Williamsville, built and opened Pine Hill Drive-in along Hwy 34, two miles east of Piedmont.

There are only 10 operating Drive-in theaters in Missouri and two are only 23 miles apart:

Pine Hill Drive-in, Piedmont
Website – 573.223.2420
21 Drive-in, Ellsinore
Website – 573.945.2121

21 Drive-in has been owned by Diana Price since 1999. As a child growing up and going to movies with her parents at 21 Drive-in she announced to her father, “Dad, one day I’m going to own that drive-in!” She recalls her father’s advice was to “Dream big.” After sitting vacant from 1989 to 1999, Price convinced her husband Cecil that they should buy the theater. His initial response was that it wouldn’t do well because “people have VCRs now.” But she made good on her declaration to her father and is celebrating her 15th year as owner of 21 Drive-in.

Last year, the Pine Hill drive-in was bought by its present owner Kimberly Uhl. Uhl was inspired to take the risk of owning a theater by her mother, who died when Uhl was 13. Uhl said she and her mother were captivated by the novelty of the outdoor movie experience. When Uhl was asked of her favorite drive-in memory, she said “I was 17 years old in my 1978 Pontiac Lemans with my best friend. We snuck her boyfriend and his friend in by hiding them in the trunk, and then had to go home before the movie ended because my parents thought I was going to a regular movie not a drive-in.”

21 Drive-in: Technician Barry Lee tends to the equipment before the show starts

21 Drive-in: Technician Barry Lee tends to the equipment before the show starts

Both drive-ins made the leap to digital projection systems this spring in order to stay open. The movie industry only provides movies using hard drives now as 35mm films are no longer available. The cost of an upgrade of that magnitude is close to $90,000, a risky investment when one can only use the system from May to September. Both owners said the difference in quality was stunning with a 6,000-watt projector bulb blasting digitally precise images to a massive screen.

The drive-in life reminds us of simpler times. Cars start arriving around 7pm and people play Frisbee, or board games or just talk as they await the movie. Both theaters are also passing out copies of SEMO TIMES, giving their patrons one more enjoyable way to pass the time while waiting for dusk to arrive.

Memories are fresh when you mention the words, “drive-in theater.”

At Pine Hill, Logan Clay, a high school junior and member of the Clearwater Tigers baseball team, sat on the back of his friend Riley’s pickup truck surrounded by even more friends: Emma, Maggie, Konnor, Dom and Matthew. Logan said his favorite memory of the drive-in was coming with his family and playing football or wiffle ball before the movie started.

Daniel Lawson said he has been watching movies at Pine Hill for all 40 years of his life. The first movie he remembers seeing at the drive-in was E.T. which came out in 1982. He loves the changes the new owner has made, especially in the movie selections that are being offered. Lawson’s wife, Lois, said their son, Nick, left for basic training back in May but the drive-in is on his list when he comes home. Enlisted in Airborne Infantry and stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia, Nick called home recently and announced he’s bringing his new girlfriend home and wants her to experience the Pine Hill Drive-in.

Steve and Barbara Hodges from Desoto come to the area to camp several times a year near Piedmont and always try to come to Pine Hill. This is their seventh year and they were excited to hear that the theater had been upgraded to the newest digital projection system.

The memories were just as strong at 21 Drive-in as movie-goers waited in and around their vehicles for darkness to fall. John Harris of Van Buren said his favorite memory was watching his first James Bond movie, Doctor No, in 1962.

Joe, from Ellington, said his parents took him to the drive-in all the time growing up; the first movie he remembers watching was Texas Chainsaw Massacre at age 6. He said, “I will never forget that movie.”

Bob Hilleman’s favorite movie at the drive-in was The Ten Commandments in 1956; as a child he remembers being in awe of the sheer “magnitude and awesomeness” of that movie on such a big screen.

As for 21 Drive-in’s owner, her earliest memory of being at that theater was from 1969 watching John Wayne in Paint Your Wagon. But her favorite memory was in 1980 watching Coal Miner’s Daughter. Price described cars being lined up along the fences and even being turned away at the gate due to the theater being at full capacity.

The two drive-ins really can’t be compared. They have two, totally different personalities. 21 Drive-in is sprawling and open with a large children’s playground and video games in the concession stand. Pine Hill has just as many pluses and is quaintly cut into the hillside making it seem much more secluded because of it.

To hear the movie, both drive-ins broadcast the movie soundtrack over FM so you can tune your car stereo or boom box to the signal. 21 Drive-in still has window speakers available at every parking spot. Pine Hill has removed their window speakers and upgraded their concessions-mounted sound system to enhance the listening experience.

Pine Hill Drive-in: Popcorn from a vintage popper more than 40 years old

Pine Hill Drive-in: Popcorn from a vintage popper more than 40 years old

Both drive-ins have a value-conscious concession stand with plenty of food choices. At 21 Drive-in, a slice of pizza, a pulled-pork sandwich, and large tub of buttered popcorn costs only $10.50. At Pine Hills they have old-style snow cones and their famous Juicy Burger which has been served at the theater using the same recipe since its opening in 1953. The Juicy Burger is a meaty sloppy joe with pickles and comes with or without spicy nacho cheese.

There is something mystical and magical about enjoying a movie and hearing the crickets and locusts chirp; seeing a shooting star fall across the night sky; looking up at the Big Dipper or gazing at the Milky Way galaxy. Without a doubt, drive-in theaters continue to be memory-makers.