The Parkway banked on Barbara Streisand’s star power (click on the photo below to enlarge it) to entice people to A Star is Born in 1976, shortly before the town of Wilbraham confronted the drive-in management about drinking, rowdiness, and the showing of adult films. What’s this? Teenagers having fun in Wilbraham in the 1970s? And attracting punks from Springfield to boot? Well, excuuuuusssse meeeeeee!
Every summer cars still line up at the site of the Parkway Drive-In. But, after parking, the drivers don’t reach for speakers to hook to their windows. Instead, they get out of their cars and head straight to the Home Depot, which now occupies this property. The Parkway closed in 1987.
Like drive-ins across western Massachusetts and across the country, the Parkway took a big hit during the videocassette boom 25 years ago and never recovered. The go-go Eighties certainly weren’t kind to area drive-ins: seven of them went bye-bye in that decade. The Hadley Drive-in’s screen remained blank after its final film in 1980, and the Sundown in Westfield, also known as to the locals as the “Run-down” in its last few years, finally went down for the count 1983. The Airline Drive-in in Chicopee Falls was grounded in 1984, and the Red Rock Drive-in Southampton closed in 1985, as did the Metro in Palmer and the East Windsor Drive-in. By 1987 I was out of the area, living in Boston, oblivious to the fate of the Parkway, the last of the drive-in movie Mohicans, when it closed that year.
The decline of the number of drive-ins nationwide, however, actually began at the end of the baby boom in the mid-sixties. The gas shortage of the early 1970s hurt them as well. Then the real estate rush of the 1980s finally doomed these theaters, even though for decades they looked like they would be a permanent part of Americana.
I must admit that I took drive-ins for granted when I was growing up. Did I ever in my wildest dreams think that they would be nearly gone by the late 1980s?
It seems that drive-ins grew up with the baby boom and died with the generation’s affluence: as more people moved to the suburbs, so did the shopping centers, so the theaters’ sites were ripe for the picking when land values in New England skyrocketed in the mid-1980s. Drive-ins, especially ones on main routes—and that was MOST of them—couldn’t earn their keep.
So sing a sad song for the drive-ins, and sing it for us and our kids—because we’re all missing out. In the eighties a handful of deteriorating drive-ins in western Massachusetts had the stubborn staying power to hang onto a bygone era as long as they could, getting in the way of “progress”—the big friggin’ box stores and shopping centers that would eventually swallow them whole. Don’t get me wrong—I appreciate the convenience of driving all the way to Home Depot to pick up a roll of duct tape. But I’d rather have the Parkway Drive-in on Boston Road.
The Parkway, which opened in 1948, also featured lots of entertainment aside from movies over the years, including pony rides mentioned in the above 1949 ad, and even professional wrestling: Gorgeous George brought his outrageous villain act there in the 1950s. I romped around the Parkway playground many times as a kid in the late sixties and early seventies, knowing full well the terror of not being able to find our car when the movie began (a terror relived again as a teenager coming back from the snack bar or the bathroom).
As drive-ins were well into their slide toward extinction in the seventies, the Parkway’s love-hate relationship with the town of Wilbraham didn’t exactly help its cause. In 1977 the town enacted an ordinance requiring “places of amusement” to close between 2:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m. Harry L. Schwab, the owner, pointed out that it was an economic hardship on him because in the summer the sun prevented him from starting movies until 9:00 p.m., and his three-film program routinely ended past 2:00 a.m.
Complaints about the Parkway actually began in the mid-sixties, according to the Kerry Segrave’s informative book on the history of drive-in theaters, but most of this bitching came from Karl Dygon and his wife, a couple who lived next to the site. Schwab went out and spent $10,000 to build a fence, but the Dygons nonetheless pressed on with their crusade, saying the speakers were too loud, and pointing out that adult films were shown there. They also insisted that the Parkway’s management invited people in vans “who became loud and intoxicated.” Come on, Dygons! Couldn't you let bygones be bygones?
At a public hearing, Schwab replied that he “hadn’t screened an X film in more than 18 months.” Then the owner of the Wilbraham Motel blamed Parkway patrons for vandalism to his property, which was kind of strange, because the motel openly advertised the fact that you could watch movies from its rooms’ windows with piped-in sound, as you can see in the matchbook cover below.
Funny, despite the ordinance, I remember going to the Parkway as soon as I got my driver’s license in 1979, and seeing The Who’s The Kids are Alright, along with two other rock movies. The triple-bill ran much later than 2:00 a.m. Believe me, I know, because the next day my parents gave me shit about my late return home. But so what? Were the wee hours screenings such a public nuisance that the selectmen had to get involved and to try to run the Parkway out of business?
I don’t remember porn playing at the Parkway, but I do recall seeing Caligula there, as well as the softcore sex-sci-fi Flesh Gordon. But, make no mistake, the Parkway wasn’t exactly corrupting the youth of Wilbraham and Springfield. We were pretty corrupted by the time we reached driving age.
Schwab, who also owned the Airline Drive-In in Chicopee, had suffered from heart problems for years before he finally grew tired of the hassles of running these businesses. Shortly after the Airline closed in 1984 he headed to Florida to work for the Boca Raton Hotel. The Parkway closed three years later.
Drive-ins: the Beginning and the End
The drive-in was a natural product of America’s love affair with the car. As soon as closed-in cars were mass manufactured, the vehicles were used for much more than transportation: sizable sedans with behemoth back seats were ideal for going out on dates. This fact did not go unnoticed by entertainment entrepreneurs, and the first drive-in was built in 1933 in Camden, NJ, laying the foundation for the drive-in boom of the following decade. The first drive-in western Massachusetts was the Auto Drive-In Theater, built at Riverside Amusement Park in Agawam in 1941. Speakers on either side of the screen provided the only sound, forcing customers to keep their windows open, regardless of the swarms of mosquitoes.
Agawam’s Auto Drive-in closed in 1945, but several others would pop up soon—the result of an economic upturn that followed World War II. Cars became symbols of rebellion and independence and teenagers were driving them in increasing numbers—and drive-ins became ideal places for boys and girls to, uh, get to know one another. Families also loved the drive-ins because they gave parents an opportunity to go out without having to search for baby sitters.
Drive-ins were the NEXT BIG THING, according to the above 1948 story in Billboard magazine, with the Parkway, along with the Sundown Drive-in being built in Westfield. The Memorial Drive-in in West Springfield opened in 1949.
Above: construction on the Riverdale Drive-In screen in West Springfield in 1950.
After the oil embargo in 1973, smaller cars were built, and people drove less in their leisure time because of rising gas prices. In the mid-1980s, the Generation X “baby bust” meant fewer adolescents in the U.S., causing drive-in attendance to decline drastically. In 1958, there were more than 4,000 drive-ins in the U.S. In 1983, 2,935 of these theaters still remained in operation, but the number dropped to 870 in 1994, and today there are just 371 left!
Many say a big part of drive-ins’ death in the northeast was due to the fact that the theaters couldn’t stay open in the cold weather. Some drive-in owners tried, but their portable heaters, which plugged into a car’s cigarette lighter, generated about as much heat as, well, a cigarette lighter. Even the most passionate couples couldn’t stay warm.
I miss the drive-ins “food.” Not the food at the concession stand—it was terrible—but the food on the screen during intermission: a tantalizing smorgasbord of junk food in glorious Technicolor. The film clips, circa 1957, were splotchy, held together with scotch tape, but they still caused a stampede at the refreshment area during the countdown. FIVE MORE MINUTES BEFORE OUR FEATURE PRESENTATION…ONE MORE MINUTE TO ENJOY THE TASTY TREATS FROM OUR SNACK BAR. Filling the screen were golden French fries smothered in blood-red ketchup. Buckets of overflowing popcorn. Hot dogs so plump they looked like they were about to explode (as opposed to the concession stand's shriveled-up hot dogs that were about to implode).
I never thought I’d find the Ten Little Indians intermission film that was shown at the Parkway Drive-in, but I did (below). I also remember another one in which a little girl shoves popcorn in her mouth like a goddamn pig in the back seat of some 1950s car, but alas, it eludes me.
In the drive-in experience, because the action on the screen often played a secondary role to the action in the cars and lots, some say these theaters took part in a trashing of an art form. These purists should listen to Oliver Stone, who said, “One of the joys of going to the movies was that it was trashy, and we should never lose that.”
But it appears as though future generations around here will never taste the foulness of a soggy slice of drive-in pizza, or the experience of sneaking into the drive-in: driving through the exit with the headlights off; hiding friends in the trunk, making the smallest person lie across the back seat floor under a “false bottom” of blankets.
The Airline Drive-in in Chicopee was in the direct path of a runway at Westover Air Force Base. The screen, pictured below, like many of these hulking monoliths, served as a perch for pigeons for several years after it closed. The weeds were almost as tall as the speaker poles (below) before it was demolished in 1987. Does anyone have a photo of the sign for the Airline? It had an incredibly cool neon airplane on it. If you have a photo, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. I know one is out there! Word has it that the sign fell onto Memorial Drive after a storm, and someone has the sucker in a private collection.
The radio ads for the Airline played Wanda Jackson’s 1960 hit Let’s Have a Party, and it was a party indeed when Eager Beavers played there in 1980. Was my ticket stub a relic of my attendance of Eager Beavers? Hmmmm, could be.
Update: Greg Mattesen submitted these 1986 photos of the Sundown Drive-in. He took them three years after it closed. $7.00 a carload! What a bargain! Don't forget to dim your lights.
The Metro, also known as the Metropolitan Airport Drive-in (1950-1985)
The Metro resorted to a little titillation, so to speak, in 1976. During an XXX movie at the drive-in, if a van's a-rockin', somebody's a-whackin'!
You have to travel pretty far in the way-back machine to swing your Edsel into the Round Hill Drive-In (1951-1966). Or, in your dreams, you can simply walk-in: bleachers were set up in front of the projection booth for the carless. It was at the edge of the North End in Springfield, on Plainfield Street near the old Pynchon Park, where the Springfield Giants minor league baseball team used to play. The site is in the vicinity of the former Valle’s Steak House. Still too young to place its location, whippersnapper? It was right next to the North End bridge. To build this theater, houses were moved and a hill was leveled, but it all came down when I-91 was under construction. Other oldies but goodies: the West Springfield Drive-in (1950-1955), the Deerfield Drive-in (1961-1975) on the corner of Routes 5 and 10, where the Yankee Candle warehouse is now, and the Valley View Drive-in (1950-1969) in South Deerfield. There was also the Airport Drive-in (opened and closed in 1945) in the Bondsville section of Palmer, the Northampton Drive-in (1955-1961) and the South Hampton Drive-in (1950-1955) in Southampton. Have I missed any other area “ozoners,” as they were called in the movie business? Please let me know.
Did you also know that the last drive-in in the area was in Sixteen Acres? No shit: one night in 1990, the imaginative people at the Evangelical Covenant Church on the corner of Plumtree and Bradley Roads actually set one up inside the church, unscrewing a set of double doors and maneuvering a five cars into its fellowship hall, where teenagers watched Dead Poets Society.
One 18-year-old, Mark Sevarino, in a VW bug, “didn’t bring a date,” according to the Springfield Union-News. “Instead, he was ‘kind of shopping,” and had several ‘mini-dates’ as different girls stopped by to sit in the bug with him.” YOU GO, MARK. Jesus fucking Christ. I appreciate the church’s effort, but…you know… Jesus fucking Christ. I think these kids needed a real drive-in under the stars, not an indoor activity monitored by the friggin’ Church Lady. What is growing in Mark’s pants during these “mini-dates?” wondered the chaperone. Could it be…Satan?
No, these kids couldn’t exactly experience the real joy of unsupervised fun at an outdoor drive-in, because by 1987 these theaters were gone daddy gone. Across the country, a smattering of marquees still stand outside abandoned theaters, jutting into the streets like rusty Cadillac fins. Now playing: nothing. Long ago, some of the marquees proclaimed CLOSED. Then the letters fell off. Kids pelted them with rocks. And then they were torn down.
Fortunately, one drive-in is still open in western Massachusetts. Unfortunately, you have to drive all the way to the New Hampshire border (one hour and nine minutes as the crow flies), because it straddles the line between Northfield, MA and Hinsdale, NH. The Northfield Drive-In, miraculously, has stayed open since 1948, when it showed its first movie. The Mendon Drive-In, in the central Massachusetts town of Mendon, is an hour and 15 minutes away. It will take you 56 minutes to get to the Mansfield Drive-in in Mansfield, CT, and the Manchester Drive-in in Manchester, CT, technically the closest one to Springfield, is 42 minutes away.
It requires true motivation to drive all-the way to one of these places, but I vow to make the pilgrimage this summer. I’m feenin’ for the familiar sounds of “yesterweekend”—tires crunching on pebbles, the chorus of honking horns whenever the movie was out of focus—or when an actress showed her breasts. (Do drive-in customers still do this?) Like the crocodile, a modern relative of the dinosaur, they thwart extinction to serve as a fragile reminder of another era, when giant movie screens ruled the suburban night.
A drive-in movie this summer: yes, I am so there. And I can enjoy a movie without assholes in the audience talking throughout the flick! Furthermore, not to be a nostalgia monger or anything, but I might just have to sneak in.
Funny story that has nothing to do with anything: one time at the Parkway Rick Riccardi was at the wheel and he kept putting his foot on the brake, prompting the driver behind us to repeatedly flash his high-beams in response to the annoying brake lights. Rick couldn’t stop himself and he finally volunteered to sit in the passenger seat so we wouldn’t get our asses kicked.
Another random Parkway recollection: Dave O'Brien and I taking a breaks from bowling at the Wilbraham Lanes to walk over and watch Yellow Submarine and The Warriors.
So, do you have any drive-in memories? Hell’s Acres wants to read them, and so do your fellow readers! Which was your favorite theater? Which movies did you see? Leave a comment! Did I mention that I love comments? Leave a comment!