I Found An New Old Drive-In

1954 aerial photo of the County Drive-InOne of my current projects involves drive-in theater history, and I just couldn’t find the location of the first one in Tucumcari NM. Let me tell you about the steps that led me to the glop of virtual asphalt that filled this pothole in my knowledge.

I post a lot of notes (as NeonMichael) at Cinema Treasures, a non-profit site dedicated to all movie theaters, indoors and drive-ins. For months there, we contributors had been baffled by the County Drive-In of Tucumcari. According to the Motion Picture Almanac series and the Theatre Catalogs, the County opened around 1949 and stayed active into the late 1950s. Those same sources also list the Canal Drive-In, which opened by 1951 and held on till perhaps the mid 1970s.

The earliest easily accessible Tucumcari aerial photos at Historic Aerials are from 1967, and the earliest topo map is from 1971. Both show the Canal, still active then, but no trace of the County. Nothing along the highways leading out of town showed the familiar pattern of drive-in screen, projection booth, and arcs of viewing ramps.

There was (is!) so little info about the County that one Cinema Treasures commenter suggested that the Canal began as the County. Drive-ins change names and cause historians confusion often enough, but there were so many concurrent listings in both contemporary drive-in directories that I figured that the County was its own place. But where?

It’s a lot less convenient than Historic Aerials, and more prone to outages, but the Earth Explorer page at the US Geological Survey site has some advantages. USGS graphics are in the public domain, and more importantly, the site offers aerial photos available nowhere else.

Yesterday afternoon, I spent about an hour drilling down into available aerial photos of Tucumcari. Skipping the images of cloud cover and those that didn’t include the entire town, I got lucky with one shot taken Oct. 10, 1954. The date was perfect for what I needed. There was the Canal on the west side. So I scanned the other highways leaving town and – nothing. No hint of a field of viewing arcs. No screen. Was the County just another name for the Canal?

I tried again, starting from the highways at the edges of the photos and slowly scanning back towards the center. And that’s when I finally found the County. (That’s the relevant piece of the photo at the top of this post.) It was also on the west side, but so close to the middle of town that Tucumcari had grown around it. Its screen cast a shadow, as did its north fence. The County also featured an uncommonly wide, unusually close projector building, which probably included a concession stand and may have offered indoor seating.

Knowing its location, I double-checked the 1967 aerial. Sure enough, that wide building and traces of the viewing arcs were still faintly visible, though not enough to notice without the location hint.

I discovered the County’s location like Columbus discovered America; some of the locals there already knew all about it. I’m sure that I had been in Tucumcari, old-timers could have told me about the County, and the local library’s old newspapers would have also told me the story. But working from Carload World Headquarters in Denver, it was so satisfying to find the proof online that the County was really there.

Video: NM’s Fiesta Closing

Carlsbad NM’s Fiesta Drive-In Theatre, which has three screens, digital projectors, and some wonderful neon signage, will reportedly closed for good after this weekend.

According to Cinema Treasures, the Fiesta opened with a single screen in 1948. (It’s listed in my 1949 Theatre Catalog that way.) It closed in 1970, but was completely rebuilt in 1989 as a three screen drive-in. According to KOB, Albuquerque’s News Leader, the Fiesta was reopened by Brad Light in 1990. He passed away in 2010 and the Fiesta went dark until his daughter, Sidney Light, reopened it again in 2012.

Sidney made the announcement on November 29th on the drive-in’s Facebook page. “It’s with great sadness that I regret to inform everyone that Fiesta Drive-In will be closing permanently after the movie showings on December 9th. I have already sold the place.” The post blamed declining audiences and a desire to move on.

It’s a small comfort that the drive-in gave locals a chance to experience it one last time, but it’s so sad that Light, who reopened in 2012 to keep her father’s legacy going and because she “knew it was a huge thing in this town,” apparently couldn’t find a buyer willing to keep the Fiesta running. Even though I got some nice photos on the place in 2013, I’m sad that I’ll never get a chance to watch a movie there.

Feb. 26: Fort Union Drive In, Las Vegas NM

It’s Day 57 of my virtual Drive-In-a-Day Odyssey. The drive from Monte Vista CO took almost four hours over twisty two-lane mountain roads. At the end of my journey, I reached the Fort Union Drive In Movie Theatre in Las Vegas NM. It’s on the north edge of town, right on Highway 518.

In a June 2014 article, the Santa Fe New Mexican documented how the Fort Union almost closed because of the need to convert to digital projection. It highlighted its new general manager, then 18-year-old Jake Cordova, who had asked his grandfather to buy the projector and take over the theater. “Las Vegas doesn’t have many other forms of entertainment,” Felipe Cordova said. “You often wonder why they discontinue this kind of entertainment that brings the community together.”

So we know that it updated to digital projection in 2014, but when did the Fort Union first open? At Visit Las Vegas NM, they say it was 1958. Then again, the Vegas Drive-In, about the same size as today’s Fort Union, opened around 1949 and was still in the 1955-56 Theatre Catalog. Did it get renamed, or did the Fort Union replace it? I just don’t know.

The Fort Union typically operates from mid-May to September or so. I expected that I’d run into a stretch like this – I’ve only seen one movie all week.

Miles Today / Total:  182 / 7426 (rounded to the nearest mile)

Movie Showing / Total Active Nights: dark / 37

Nearby Restaurant: For a touch of history in this old railroad town, a great place to eat is The Landmark Grill at the Plaza Hotel. It was like stepping through a time warp to the late 19th century, except for the prices. I chose the somewhat reasonably priced blue corn enchiladas so I’d feel better about trying their bread pudding for dessert. The best I’ve ever had is still at the Golden Nugget in that other Las Vegas, but this one’s on the list.

Where I Virtually Stayed: A few days ago, I suggested that if the Super 8 is the best hotel in a town, that might mean it doesn’t have much competition. In Las Vegas, despite the historic, excellent Plaza Hotel, it’s the Super 8 that has the highest traveller rating on TripAdvisor. Because it really is that good, especially for the money. Evening soup and a decent breakfast are included, as is some of the friendliest service you’ll ever find.

Only in Las Vegas: Thirty minutes away from the Fort Union Drive-In is the Fort Union National Monument. Fort Union was built in 1851 near the convergence of the Cimarron and Mountain branches of the Santa Fe Trail. In 1879 a newly built railroad began to displace traffic on the trail, and in 1891 the Army abandoned the fort. Fort Union National Monument was established in 1956, so maybe that’s when and why they renamed the drive-in.

Next Stop: Corral Drive-In, Guymon OK.