X-Rated Films, Arson And Daylight Saving: Author Talks About The Complicated History Of Colorado's Drive-In Theaters
Most theaters were forced to close their doors during the pandemic, but drive-ins have found new opportunities and new audiences. With spring just around the corner and the state’s handful of drive-in theaters gearing up for the season, KUNC arts reporter Stacy Nick spoke with Michael Kilgore, author of “Drive-Ins of Route 66” and “Drive-Ins of Colorado,” to find out more about our outdoor theater history.
These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Stacy Nick: Historically, Colorado didn't immediately hop on the trend of drive-ins. Why do you think that was and what changed?
Michael Kilgore: The problem was that people thought that people out West weren't going to like it because the seasons would be too short, because it would get too cold. After (WWII), Leonard Albertini had a hard time trying to convince people in Denver that this is something to try out. Albertini finally got Harris Wolfberg involved, and he got a group of investors together to build what would become the East Drive-In in Aurora. And it was such a huge success that everybody just piled right on afterwards, and it just exploded from there.
Tell me a little bit about the history of Colorado's first drive-in, the East 70 Drive-In in Aurora.
The East opened in 1947, so that was the start of the drive-in era in Colorado. In 1955, a Denver Post photographer got a photo of President Eisenhower, who was convalescing across the street, apparently from either the screen tower or just from the top of the projection booth. The theater was renamed the East 70 in 1965 when they added 70 millimeter projectors. In August 1994, two teenagers working at the box office up front were almost killed by a robber with a knife who was later apprehended and convicted. But the theater closed just a few months later. I don't know if those two are related, but it would be hard to mention the history of the East without remembering that awful incident.
I was really fascinated reading your book, just with all of the details and the stories, things like Commerce City’s East 88 Drive-In (now 88 Drive-In Theatre) used to show X-rated movies, and there was the Delta drive-in war, and the first road-spike strip essentially was designed at Sterling's Starlight Drive-In to keep people from sneaking in.
One of the projectionists there, they had a standing job before the movie started to just hang around the exit path to make sure people weren't going in the wrong way. There's a long history of people trying to beat the system and getting in to see the movie for free. And so they worked out this kind of crude looking and kind of heavy, oh, I don't know, steampunk-ish looking thing that's otherwise just like what you would see when you drive out of a rental car agency, where the spikes pointed in one direction. And if you go in that direction, your car’s tires are going to get ripped up. It just shows you that necessity is the mother of invention in this and in all other things.
When you started this project, did you think that you would find so much controversy wrapped into the history of Colorado drive-ins?
The first book I wrote was the “Drive-Ins of Route 66,” and based on what I got out of that I was kind of a little surprised that there was as little as there was in the history of the Colorado drive-ins. With the East 88 (showing X-rated films), that was mainly a problem because the neighbors there went to a lot of effort to try to get the 88 built and within a year it had flipped on them — instead of having a nice friendly drive-in, they were showing hardcore movies.
(Note: In the late 1970s, the theater changed ownership, changed its name to 88 Drive-In Theatre and moved back to a more traditional movie format. It’s still in business today.)
Wasn’t it right across from a school, too?
Yes. Kids would get into the school and climb up to the roof so they could look over the fence to watch the movie. Things you did before the Internet, I guess.
The Delta Drive-In War is definitely the topper because there's so much intrigue and interpersonal relationships and serious property damage and wow, a lot of things going on there. Of course, it's a very long, complicated story, which I will try to summarize. What was then called the Skylite Drive-In — later became the Big Sky — was built first in Delta, and then someone else came along and built the TruVu very close by. So then at some point, allegedly, it was said in court that the folks behind the Skylite perhaps orchestrated a campaign of vandalism against the TruVu, which is the kind of thing an unscrupulous person might do to try to drive out a rival drive-in. I have no idea whether it actually happened that way, but that was what was said.
And it culminated in the arson of the projection booth/concession stand building. The arsonist was tried and convicted and had confessed but was a juvenile, so I shall say as little as possible about that person. But in a civil suit it was said that the people behind the Skylite had directed this arson. And after a second trial — the first one was a hung jury — they settled out of court and apparently relinquished control of both drive-ins, which then got split up because — and here's where it gets really crazy — the people who owned the TruVu got divorced. And as part of that civil suit trial, the guy who owned it said that his wife was actually perhaps mentally unstable when she sold her half of the rights to the drive-in to the guy who owned the Skylite. It was a big mess.
It bounced around for a few years after that. And then the Dewsnup family came in and did a wonderful job of running the place and were greatly beloved for decades afterward. When the oil shale bust happened in the ‘80s, they had to chose to close one of the two drive-ins and they kept the TruVu because it had less light pollution. And the TruVu still runs to this day, which is such a nice thing.
There's definitely not as many in Colorado as there used to be. What do you think it was that led to the decline in drive-ins?
The best way to describe it is to first talk about the factors that led to drive-ins in the first place, which led to their extreme popularity because they were just off the charts popular in the early 1950s. A lot of the reasons why are things that today we would have a hard time imagining. We had to dress up to go to an indoor theater. It was more like a night on the town. You had to dress up and you had to pay to park. Land at the edge of towns postwar was cheap.
Then there was television — nobody had it at all in Colorado until the early ‘50s. So, when drive-ins got started, they weren't there. It wasn't available at all. Daylight Saving Time wasn't here yet. The movies that Hollywood was creating were suitable for all audiences, for the most part. You could bring the whole family if you wanted to, and there'd be something for everybody.
What caused the decline of drive-ins was all of those factors falling away one by one. Indoor theaters made it to the suburbs and they had free parking, so that was no longer an issue. And casual wear was now OK to go see a movie. And then the movies themselves became more mature, not like in the racy way, but just with more mature themes, not simple themes like Westerns and just good guys and bad guys kind of thing.
Daylight Saving Time came around, which cut a very important hour right off the top of the evening. We're used to summer now; dusk doesn't really come until almost 9 o'clock. It's hard to watch a long movie on a school night. Land got expensive pretty much everywhere, anywhere near a city. And of course, TV arrived. TV set prices went down. And even though it was a small picture, it was paid for and there it was. And cable arrived with more channels. And then there were HBO and other movie channels that gave you the same kind of commercial-free, uncut movies that you get on there. And then the ultimate killer was the video cassette recorder.
I noticed over the last year with the pandemic that drive-ins have had a real resurgence in popularity. They've been used for everything from concerts to even Red Rocks Amphitheatre got in on it a little bit and kind of had their own pop-up drive-in, hosting their Film on the Rocks series in the parking lot. Do you think that may spur a renewed interest that will continue after things get back to “normal?”
A little-mentioned reason for the popularity of drive-ins in the early ‘50s was the polio epidemics that were going on. Whenever a polio flare up would happen, the indoor theaters would close and people would still tend to go to drive-ins. So there's a little bit of a parallel there. Once drive-ins got over the last big hump, which was the switch over to digital projection, the ones that survived seem to be pretty much in it for the long haul. There aren't very many drive-ins these days that close from lack of interest. It's a great way to see a movie kind of privately, kind of publicly and with nice breezes and beautiful sky above you. So I would hope that sort of enthusiasm would continue.
Michael Kilgore is the author of “Drive-Ins of Colorado” and “Drive-Ins of Route 66” and runs www.carload.com. Kilgore is speaking Wednesday at the Aurora History Museum’s virtual Lunch Lectures series. The event is free but advance registration is required.
This conversation is part of KUNC’s Colorado Edition for March 16. You can find the full episode here.