The Houston (MO) Herald had a fine story yesterday about the relatively new management at the Phoenix Drive-In there. Josh and Jennifer Shelton acquired the place in June 2018, and they’ve got something to do every week because the Phoenix also has an indoor theater.
“It’s going well – it’s busy,” Josh said. “Jennifer always told people we love to watch movies, and that’s a lot easier when you own a theater.”
The single indoor screen holds about 190 patrons, and it’s available for rent for video game parties including wireless controls. The single outdoor field holds “close to 150 vehicles” and operates whenever weather permits, including weekends during this past holiday season.
The Phoenix opened as the Sunset in May 1951 with a capacity of 350 cars (if you believe the Theatre Catalog) or 150 (if you prefer the Motion Picture Almanac). Both sources say “H. E. Lay” ran it at the start, then “R. D. Fischer” (or Fisher) took over around 1955. By 1977, someone named Wyatt was in charge. And some time after the late 1980s, possibly when its screen was blown down and rebuilt, the drive-in was renamed the Phoenix.
The Herald article is accompanied by 11 fine photographs by its author, Doug Davison, who wrote a similar story in the Herald in 2011 about the Phoenix and its then-owner Samantha Thomas. (Even then, the drive-in had already “changed hands several times”.) If you want a happy story about a little drive-in that’s embraced by its community and run by enthusiastic caretakers, go read botharticles!
The Kansas City Star recently reported that the I-70 Drive-In has closed permanently, according to an email from the drive-in’s owners. Just a few years ago, I wrote that its future was uncertain, but that was before it invested in digital projection. Normally, that’s a clear sign that the drive-in intends to continue for a long time to repay that investment, but the owner, B&B Theatres, told the Star that “an arrangement with the landlord could not be reached”.
The good news, or maybe it’s glass-half-full news, is that the Kansas City metro area still has two other active drive-ins, the Twin in Independence and the Boulevard in Kansas City KS.
I have a history with the I-70. Once upon a time, I took the wife to see A League of Their Own there, and whenever I hear about watching a drive-in movie in the rain, that’s the memory that surfaces for me. That movie taught us that there’s no crying in baseball, but crying about drive-ins remains optional.
While we wait for some real drive-in news to pop up again, I wanted to share this weird little slice of drive-in history. In Joplin MO, the Mini Art Theater showed movies using the Autoscope system, patented by Tom Smith of Urbana MO, about 120 miles away. Using mirrors, the movie was delivered to a circle of (in this case) 120 windshield-sized screens, one for each car in attendance. You can see a photo of an old active Autoscope drive-in here.
According to online sources, the Mini Art opened around 1971, and from its inception showed adult films. It didn’t pop up in the International Motion Picture Almanac until 1978, when it was owned by R. Younger. It continued through the final IMPA list in 1988, then owned by N. Sinclair, though it’s possible it could have closed a few years earlier.
I had always wondered about the appeal of an Autoscope’s ring of screens. The pre-VCR days of adult film would seem to be a good fit for that technology.
The embedded video shows the way the site looked in 2015. Indeed, considering the tornado that devastated Joplin in 2011, it’s surprising that the 40+ year old Mini Art’s outline is still visible on Google Maps. If you poke around the internet, you might find a few photos of how the Mini Art Theater looked in its heyday. Have fun!