This post is going to be too “inside baseball” for just about anyone who doesn’t research the history of drive-in theaters. Anytime you think this is getting dull, feel free to skip to another post. In fact, I’ll bury this a few months back just so normal readers won’t have to put up with it. Since I wish I had read it years ago, I feel compelled to write it to help other researchers; maybe search algorithms will let them find it somehow.
This is a guide to the drive-in theater lists, and a few other parts, of the Motion Picture Almanac* (MPA) series, published by Quigley Publishing Company. The 1947-48 and 1948-49 MPAs each included a simple list of US drive-ins by city. It skipped 1949-50, then the 1950-51 edition launched an annual drive-in list that would continue through 1988. That first full list included each drive-in’s name, city, capacity, and owner.
The name/capacity/owner format continued until the 1967 MPA, when it was compressed to just city, name, and capacity. This reduced version of the list continued until 1977, when it returned to the previous format, complete with owner, and added local addresses. The last change was in the 1983 edition, which replaced the car capacity column with the number of screens.
What’s most important to us researchers when we look at these old lists is how much we can trust their entries. I have no direct knowledge of how they were put together, but I have developed a working theory.
My guess is that the overworked editors, putting together these books in spare hours between issues of their magazine, Motion Picture Herald, added a new entry to the drive-in lists only when they saw a relevant story or got a letter to tell them about it. The MPAs came out early in the year, so if a new drive-in showed up in the 1962 edition, that meant that the letter from its owner probably came in 1961. If no one noticed or cared to write in until later, a drive-in could go years after its opening to show up on the MPA list.
Similarly, once a drive-in was on the list, it would only be edited (new owner or capacity) or deleted if someone wrote in with the news. Although it would be somewhat common for a new owner to ask for the change, most closed drive-ins had no one to let Quigley’s staff know that they should be removed from the list.
In short, the MPA was a lagging indicator. And when it comes to determining what year a drive-in closed, the books are often of little help.
One more, special case: During the decade of reduced MPA drive-in information, 1967-76, even fewer changes than usual made the lists. I call them the “autopilot” years. But in 1977, someone apparently made a special effort to take a new, detailed drive-in census. The 1977 edition was one of the best at describing the theater landscape of its time.
Finally, if you can’t trust the drive-in lists, what can you trust? The answer is the circuit lists. Most of the larger theater ownership circuits had entries in a different annual MPA list. In each of those entries, the circuit would list all of its holdings by state. If the drive-in that you’re checking was owned by one of these circuits, then with a bit of digging, or a digitized search, you can find owner-supplied info that’s more reliable than the MPA drive-in lists.
You read this far? Amazing! Or maybe you’re a kindred spirit, since I was simply writing what I wish someone had told me when I first picked up an MPA just a few years ago.
* In the relevant drive-in list years (1947-1988), the full name for each volume was the International Motion Picture Almanac, except for three editions (1952-53, 1953-54, and 1955) when it became the Motion Picture and Television Almanac.