By Jim Buchanan
As summer sizzled in Sylva 70 years ago, a new form of entertainment designed to get families out of the house arrived in the area: the county’s first drive-in theater.
It was part of a wave that was sweeping the nation.
In 1933 the first drive-in theatre in America was opened in Camden, New Jersey. In spite of the challenging economic times of the Great Depression, Richard Hollingshead did some research and “analyzed the market from the standpoint of what people gave up last. It came out this way: Food. Clothing. Autos. Movies. In order.”
In hard times, people needed an escape, and movies provided it.
The concept of people watching movies from the comfort of their own automobiles was a hit. It really took off after the invention of in-car speakers in the 1940s, and by the late 1950s there were more than 4,000 drive-ins spread across the land.
On Aug. 4, 1949, the Herald broke the news of a drive-in of our very own.
“No more babysitter worries” is the word from Mr. E.Y. Neal, owner and operator of the Sylva Drive-in Theater to open soon adjacent to the Sylva airport. “This is only one of the advantages of the drive-in type theater,” Mr. Neal continued.
He emphasized the fact that the whole family could be right at home in their automobile, and talk and smoke if desired, without disturbing anyone else. Invalids and crippled persons can come in a car and see a movie in perfect comfort, he states.
The drive-in will accommodate 300 cars on the graveled field. All equipment is brand new, the latest and best available, and only first run pictures will be shown, Mr. Neal stated. He is using an asbestos screen, 40 feet by 50 feet, enabling all the parked cars to have a clear, unobstructed view of the picture. Admission will be 40 cents per person, with children under 12 admitted free. Family night will be held once each week. Admission will be one dollar per car on this day. Mr. Neal stated that this does not apply to persons on the rear of a truck. There will also be a concession stand, selling popcorn and cold drinks, to patrons of the theater.”
In the History of Jackson County Sesquicentennial Edition, John Slater wrote that the new venture charged 40 cents for adults. Children under 12 were admitted free.
“The large screen at the Sylva Drive-In was destroyed by ‘a tornado-type gust’ of wind in 1956,” Slater wrote, “but it was rebuilt twice as large, to provide for showing Cinemascope pictures.”
The drive-in closed around 1966. Today, only around 330 remain in operation nationally, victims of changing cultural habits and changing technology – it’s a lot harder to pry people off their couches with large home screens and on-demand movies.