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Omaha Magazine

Cinema Under the Stars

May 09, 2015 02:05PM ● By Judy Horan
Article originally published in May/June 2015 Omaha Magazine.

You knew them as “drive-in” theaters, but in 1933 outdoor theaters were created as “park-in” theaters by Richard Hollingshead in Camden, N.J. He wanted to make movie-going easier for his mother.

More than 40 drive-in theaters operated in Nebraska at their peak popularity in the 1950s and 1960s, according to DriveinMovie.com. But in the 1970s, drive-in theaters faced increased competition from television and slowly died.

Omaha’s first drive-in theater, the 76 West Dodge Drive-in, opened in 1948 and held on until 1984. Susan Eustice, the director of public relations and communications for The Salvation Army, lived nearby as a girl. Her neighborhood near Methodist Hospital was populated with many physicians, and one of her good friends was the daughter of a pediatrician.

Eustice recalls being smuggled into the drive-in theater along with her friend in the doctor’s 1964 Thunderbird convertible. “It wasn’t like we didn’t have allowances, but it was much more fun to climb in the trunk and drive a few blocks to the drive-in,” she says.

The Council Bluffs Drive-in was the last holdout in the Omaha area. Opened in 1950 three miles east of the South Omaha Bridge, it closed in 2007. The Golden Spike near 114th and Dodge streets also was very popular. The Sky View Drive-in at 72nd Street and Hartman Avenue advertised “The World’s Largest Screen.” It was a towering 80 feet in height.

Teens called the outdoor theaters “passion pits,” but Mark Tatelman of Omaha doesn’t remember such hanky-panky. He does recall wearing pajamas to the drive-in as a child while seeing such classics as The Music Man. “I didn’t make it through the whole movie,” says the former Omaha Magazine editor. He also remembers his parents struggling at a drive-in when rain poured down. They kept the windshield wipers going and worried about running out of gas.

Weather was always a concern when it came to a night at the drive-in, agrees Gary Willis. “Sometimes it got hot, really hot,” Willis says. “So we sat on lawn chairs outside the car.” In the spring and fall, car heaters at the 76h West Dodge Drive-in made a night under the stars bearable. Willis also remembers visiting the Q Twin Drive-in near 120th and Q streets and the Airport Drive-in at 11th and Locust.

Drive-ins were cost-saving, notes Willis: “You could bring your own goodies with you. And my parents didn’t have to hire a babysitter.”

One of seven children living in Ralston, Helen Jordon says her family also found drive-in movies to be cheap entertainment. “You could take a whole load of kids, and it didn’t cost much.” Jordon remembers sitting in her parents’ 1949 Plymouth while Charles Laughton lurched his way through The Hunchback of Notre Dame at the 84th and Center Drive-in. “All I remember is how horrible-looking he was as the hunchback,” Jordan says. “He had bells on him to warn people because he was so ugly. Whenever I’d hear the bells, I’d hide in the back seat so I didn’t see him.”

One moviegoer who prefers to remain anonymous recalls the risks of sneaking into the Grandview Outdoor in Bellevue. His stunt was quickly punished, but not by theater management.

For what seemed an eternity after their arrival, his friends left him locked helplessly in the trunk.

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