The Story Behind A Drive-In Without A Name

If you ever find yourself cruising east along I-20 through the center of Eastland County, Texas, just outside the sleepy town of Olden, right around County Road 438 overpass, you will pass by what appears to be the skeletal remains of an old drive-in theatre, the name of which is unknown, even to people who have lived nearby their entire lives.

Drive-In screens, by their very nature, are built to tell stories. That is their purpose. When the sun goes down, the projection room lights up, beaming flickering images through the night air onto a larger-than-life outdoor screen. However, this particular drive-in screen along a quite stretch of Texas highway never got the chance to tell its stories, or make cherished family memories lasting a lifetime.

Hal Walker lived with his young family in the small town of Ranger, Texas, during the mid 1940s. He was an ordinary man with ordinary dreams, raising a young family in post-World War II America. Hal was president of the local First National Bank of Ranger, and was looking to invest in a business which was, at that time, a very exciting new form of movie entertainment. Hal began building what would have been the first drive-in movie theatre in rural Eastland County, Texas, along what was then known as Highway 80.

Sadly, even the best laid plans of well-intentioned people can be thwarted by the cruelties of fate. While his new drive-in was under construction, Hal’s daughter died tragically in a horse riding accident. There can be no greater pain in life than to lose a young child, and Hal’s grief must have been unimaginable. Work on the drive-in came to an abrupt halt, after Hal’s daughter was suddenly taken away from his world.

Hal and his wife were utterly grief-stricken and inconsolable. The nameless drive-in theatre along Interstate 20 would never be completed or opened. Hal’s heart just wasn’t in it any longer.

The remains of Hal’s unfinished drive-in screen still stand to this day, as a lonely reminder of what might have been, and dreams unfulfilled. Hal Walker would eventually bury the grief deep inside his soul, and move on to serve his community over multiple terms as mayor of Ranger, Texas. It may have been a different life than the one Hal had once envisioned, but fate has a strange way of changing the course of life when least expected, or desired.

There would eventually be several other drive-ins built in Eastland County, Texas, all of which have been closed now for decades. Olden had the Dixie Drive-In, the Joy Drive-In would bring great happiness to the people of Cisco, and the Ranger Drive-In would arise in the town of its namesake.

And yet, Hal Walker’s never-opened, nameless drive-in screen, a local landmark that had its dreams ended before they ever began, is forever linked to the untimely death of a promising young girl in a community which, perhaps unknowingly, still grieves for her more than 70 years later.

“Bad things do happen; how I respond to them defines my character and the quality of my life. I can choose to sit in perpetual sadness, immobilized by the gravity of my loss, or I can choose to rise from the pain and treasure the most precious gift I have—life itself.” ~ Walter Inglis Anderson

This guest post was written by Rick Cohen, owner of the Transit Drive-In in Lockport NY, and used by permission. Thanks!

Mar. 1: Sandell Drive-In, Clarendon TX

It’s Day 60 of my virtual Drive-In-a-Day Odyssey. The drive from Amarillo was just an hour to the Sandell Drive-In in Clarendon TX. I started the third month of the odyssey with what will be my last stop in Texas.

According to KFDA, Amarillo’s News Leader, the Sandell Drive-In opened in September 1955 and was named after owner Gary Barnhill’s two daughters, Sandra and Adele. In closed in the late 1980s, then John Murrow purchased it and reopened in 2002. I love drive-in revivals! The Sandell switched to digital conversion around the end of 2011, so it looks like it’s in it for the long haul.

Coolest part of the Sandell? As shown in this photo, for the box office they use a repurposed booth from Clic Photo, a manned parking lot kiosk that was part of a smaller chain that was a lot like Fotomat. That’s so brilliant that I’m surprised I’ve never seen anyone else do that.

The Sandell web page says it held a special junior high school fundraiser on Feb. 11, but otherwise it’s open Fridays and Saturdays from April through September. Which makes this my eighth straight day of dark screens and no end in sight.

Miles Today / Total:  61 / 7863 (rounded to the nearest mile)

Movie Showing / Total Active Nights: dark / 37

Nearby Restaurant: What would I expect to find to eat in Clarendon? A solid steakhouse? Check! A good pizza joint? Check! The surprise was an authentic Lao Thai restaurant with the stealth name of the Jinda Cafe. I started with the Jinda roll and continued through the yellow curry. It’s great to find something this nice and unexpected.

Where I Virtually Stayed: It was just across the railroad track from the Sandell, and there aren’t a lot of choices in Clarendon, but the Best Western Red River Inn would have been a good pick no matter the circumstances. It’s a clean, modern place with wifi in the room and eggs, bacon, and omelets for breakfast in the morning.

Only in Clarendon: Just up the road in Groom TX, there’s an old water tower along old Route 66 that leans on purpose. According to Wikipedia, the tower was slated for demolition until Ralph Britten bought it and moved it to serve as a sign for his truck stop and tourist information center, and he thought it would attract more attention if it leaned a little. Oh, and Groom also has a 190-foot, free-standing cross.

Next Stop: Winchester Drive In, Oklahoma City OK.

Feb. 28: Tascosa Drive-in Theater, Amarillo TX

It’s Day 59 of my virtual Drive-In-a-Day Odyssey. The drive from Guymon OK was just two hours from the heart of the Oklahoma panhandle to the Tascosa Drive-in Theater in Amarillo, the heart of the Texas panhandle. I ended the second month of the odyssey with a solid week of dark screens, but what else would I expect for February?

According to Cinema Treasures, the Tascosa opened in 1953 and added a second, smaller screen in 1967. It apparently closed some time before 1984, and in the 1990s part of it became an RV park. The Tascosa reopened in 1999 using only the smaller screen, and it’s been operating ever since. I love drive-in revivals!

As you can see by the Tascosa web page, I didn’t miss opening day by much, just a week and a half before Kong Skull Island starts the new season on March 10. Still, it’s another dark night that I’ll need to make up for once drive-in season returns in earnest.

Miles Today / Total:  119 / 7802 (rounded to the nearest mile)

Movie Showing / Total Active Nights: dark / 37

Nearby Restaurant: I couldn’t very well pass up the opportunity to sample the World’s Best Pancakes, and that’s what the sign promised at Ye Olde Pancake Station. It seems like the only reason I was able to get in without waiting too long was that I arrived in the late morning on a Tuesday. Huge, plate-sized pancakes that taste great too. Maybe they really are the world’s best.

Where I Virtually Stayed: Quick story: Amarillo has a lot of motels, and once upon a time in the pre-web days, I took it for granted that I’d be able to find a room. When I arrived that night around 11 pm, I found out there was a convention in town and every room was taken. I ended up heading east until I finally found a vacancy at the Best Western in Shamrock TX a sleepy hour and a half away. Now it’s easy to book a room online, so I was sure that the Drury Inn would be waiting for me. They’ve always got a great breakfast, and their evening reception was even more appropriate considering I didn’t have to leave to watch a movie that night.

Only in Amarillo: When it comes to eating challenges, the Big Texan Steak Ranch is legendary. As told by billboards all around the region, if you can eat the full 72-ounce steak dinner with all the trimmings, it’s on the house. The restaurant was the first challenge undertaken by Adam Richman on his Man v Food series on the Travel Channel. On the show, it was said that only about one in six challengers are successful.

Next Stop: Sandell Drive-In, Clarendon TX.