Ok, so the kids are back in school, but we still have those warm weekends and great fall nights to look forward to. See for yourself why fall is a great time for you and your drive in theater.
The Irish Icon, DiTMCO!
DIT-MCO incorporated in 1948 as the Drive-In Theater Manufacturing Company providing products for the drive-in theater business. Shortened to DIT-MCO and used as the name of it’s new mascot in 1951, the line continued to grow year after year to become the Sears & Roebuck catalog of the industry. Wisely in time the company diversified, and although the Drive In Theater division has recently closed , the company remains with a line of electronic test devices.
Funny thing is as the company drifted away from Drive In equipment, this little guy holding a speaker and heater became unrecognizable to latter era employees. A company newsletter inquired about the icon and went back to one of the old dogs, who in turn came up with a fanciful story of a long Irish name.
Today the icon lives on in memory only, and in the pages of old catalogs such as this:
Like the renewing night sky that envelopes it, the Drive In is ever changing. Time and circumstance make sure that in structure, environment, and experience cinema under the stars will adapt. One who has weathered its seasons and bridged these changes became a gate keeper along the way. With understanding and pieces of the story Craig Binnebose created the Drive In Theater Museum, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the history of the Drive In, and also directs the modern theater called Moonlight Movies. This alliance of the old and the new uses proven methods, new ideas and the latest in technology, items which may be useful to future outdoor exhibitors.
Currently working with the Iowa Historical Museum he has contributed to an exhibit which tells the history of Iowa and the film industry, its people, personality, and how it played back home again.
“Hollywood In the Heartland” is a multiyear project opening this June 27th and is sure to be a success in Des Moines.
Craig also stays busy as the director of the Iowa Independent Film Festival. During the summer months this organizing brings free movies to the public square at Clear Lake IA.
I asked Craig if I could ask a few questions about his museum and experiences, and out of his busy summer schedule he has answered.
Beginning with a local ozoner, the Mason City Drive In, Craig set out to see what could be done when he heard of its scheduled closing.
Where or how did it all get started?
The Drive-In Theatre Museum got started in 1997 when I was given access to the Mason City Drive-In Theatre when it sold. I went and asked the new owners and they gave me the keys. All the equipment was scrap to them and I was able to save it just before it would have gown to the scrap yard. I spent 4 months saving everything I could. Then I called CSTC the company who I had worked for in 1970 and got lucky, the one who was now running the company was a Drive-In Theatre manager. He liked someone caring enough to save the old things so he let me in as they sold the last of their Drive-In’s. I got into the Ranch Drive-In and then the Hillcrest about a year apart as they sold. I then tracked down the new owner of the Bel-Air Fly-In Drive-In, one of only 5 built that included an airport. I then found out about the 1st Watts hardtop theatre in Osage, IA when the projection booth from 1920 was found in the late 1990′s, last used in about 1951.
Did you ever have any inkling of the value that the collection would have or where you just trying to save history from destruction?
I have never thought of what I saved other than the historical valve to me. I just could not sit by and watch it disappear; I had to try to save it. I already saw Mason City tear down the Cecil / Park 70, Palace and the Strand Hardtop for a Mall that now keeps going bankrupt. These were theatre’s that I worked at and viewed so many movies for so many years. Being able to watch a Christopher Lee Dracula movie with real bats flying around at the Cecil / Park 70 theatre was priceless. Later looking down at the Strand Theatre’s Carbon Arc which had fallen into the basement was hard to see as I had once run that equipment. I still have photos of those days. Earlier in the 1980′s, I tried to get in and save things but the city and the manager would not let me save anything. The carbon arc lamp houses changed to xeon so the old ones had no monetary valve. Also stored at Strand but not allowed to be saved were The “Music Man” painted plywood panels, which I had looked at for years while working there.
So in 1997 when the new owners of the Mason City Drive-In let me in to save what I could I was very lucky, and that was the actual start of my collection.
How did collecting outside of the immediate area come about and the cost?
When I did get a chance to travel, I always looked for ozone and hardtop theatres. When I was collecting, I was still working 10 to 12 hour days so I could only look on weekends. The paper records I found at the Mason City Drive-In gave me names so I called then and they helped me get into other Iowa Drive-In’s as they closed. I never thought of the money it cost, I just wanted to save the theatre history.
How did it come about when you thought others might be interested in seeing some of the collection, and how you would like to share it?
Nobody was able to see most of what I saved; it was always behind closed doors to the public. So I found a glass building at 604 N. Federal were I could put the equipment on display without the opening the doors. For many years people would contact me and tell me how much they liked seeing the projectors. I was surprised so many people liked seeing what I have saved.
Six years ago I lost that location and transferred to a 5 plex which had closed its doors, but still had many windows for display. This was at the same mall which had been built upon the torn down theater. There I was able to once again display the pieces of my collection. I had plans and was ready to open up the abandoned theatre in the mall once again to show older movies and keep the items on display. Every time I had ever walked into the mall, people were standing looking at the displays so the public enjoyed seeing Theatre history.
However the new mall management from the second bankruptcy notified me on December 17th that I had until December 31 to get out.
Today it still sits empty.
It’s been a long journey, what would you like to share about your experiences.
I am wondering what will now happen to what I have saved now that I’m reaching a point where I can’t keep it. I had to scrap almost 1 ton of my lesser items. I did not want to do it but with my disability, I have to face the facts that I cannot save everything I collected. The Iowa State Historical Museum did take some of the best things for their collection but they do not have the space for so much that still needs to be saved. I will hold on to what remains as long as I can but it does not look good.
How did the exhibit at the State Historical Museum come about?
Word of mouth and my web page. Some years ago the State did a survey of Iowa theatres and contacted me.
What would you like to see your museum become in the future?
The internet and the 3 year display at the State Historical Museum in Des Moines “Hollywood in the Heartland” starting in late June are now what remains. I still hope I can find a place that could save the remainder of my collection but it does not look like that will happen.
How about the future of the Drive In Theaters?
With just under 400 still in operation, old ones reopening and new one being built, it looks like they will still hang on at a much lower level then the 5,000 we had at one time in history. Increased land valves and Daylight Saving almost wiped out this American invention but it is still hanging on!
One last question. Your website displays an ad by Ballantyne for a complete Drive In Theater kit, called the Rustic Theater. In your travels, have you ever seen one of these kits constructed?
Folks, any of us gifted with the accursed and non-profitable call to preserve history knows it’s a very very hard journey. In Craig’s own words you see the motivation, reason, and struggle to pass on the knowledge of the past. When a rare person comes along and takes the chance to devote much of their life to that endeavor, it’s a shame not to assist them in ways that we can. I ask that you visit his museum, write him, and see what can be done to make sure that this important part of our history is not lost.
There on the back of the comic book was the projector, $19.95 and all the money in the world. I’m sure it was a tiny silent 8 mm but on the illustration a crowd watched and listened attentively, smiles all around. The closest I even had gotten to one of these crowd pleasers was at a bingo game with my mom. One number away from the projector prize when a grumpy lady a few tables over flatly announced bingo.
Hopes crushed I remained with my View-Master projector. At the end of our hall was a small white cardboard screen, and scenes played out over seven clicks of the lever. Nearly wore out the Snoopy and the Red Baron reel set.
I still have that set up and thought I would travel back and put on a show for my kids. I must admin they were a kind audience, but the hazy images, barely visible light level, and limited plot no doubt only demonstrated for us all how far home entertainment’s come. How amazing now is it that we can take a coded file, use that information in conjunction with a whole heck of a lot of changing micro mirrors, and project out all those images onto a screen. Of course, with sound. Hands down smashes the View-master projector.
However, there once was another option. Now that I’m a collector of Drive In memorabilia, I found a cool little set up called the….
Walt Disney’s Character Drive In Movie.. if only I had discovered this when I was a kid, I most certainly could have pestered my parents into a nice Christmas present. This thing has it all, films, projector, sound, a car, and a screen.
I see no recommended age group on the box, but this baby seems pretty intrinsic for it’s intended users. The best place to start is with the instructions, just like every good DIY does.
Ok, I think we can deal with the first warnings that are taped to the top of the unit.
Ah the good stuff..
I love it, it’s all there. A closer look at where our image and sound comes from reveals an amusing but not implausible combination.
A further look at our equipment..
In the top photo, the red platform shows where our film cartridge, or should I say canister, snaps into place. That shot is actually missing the drive sprocket which you see in the second photo. The second photo, with the yellow platform, has the film cartridge in place. Although the box cover says no threading needed, there is still a minimal amount to be done. Here the film guide cover was removed, and the film thread over the top of the sprocket. Out on top the loop comes just before the gate, ( no shutter but you can’t have it all) then out to the bottom loop, on back past the sprocket, replace the film guide cover, and into the cartridge again. I can’t help but get geeked to how close this would have been to actually owning a projector. Our lamp is also clearly seen and runs off 2 D size batteries.
The film is driven by the turn of ole Donald’s steering wheel …
On the right of the above photo the lamp on and off switch is imaginatively activated with the turn of dashboard ignition key. By the way, the vertical position of the platform is another step on your way to putting on the show.
And now let’s have a look at our sound equipment ~
First, we use a plastic record and turntable driven by a DC motor drawing from a separate D battery.
And here’s our sound reproducer ~
It’s probably hard to tell from the picture but that’s a sound drum, similar to some of the old hand crank phonographs, dropping it’s needle onto the record. A few more pictures of the sound drum follow, but before leaving this picture, there are a couple of features to notice. One is near the center bottom of the above photo, you will see two pieces of tin not making contact. This is actually the shut off switch. A lever which moves the drum to the edge of the record has pushed open the contacts and the power is off. Next item of interest is on the bottom right which is the speed control. The flexible wire acts as a resistor and the thicker heavier piece bends out and runs to a knob on the front of the dashboard. Turn it and wala, you can set the speed of the record exactly to the speed in which you are hand-cranking your film. Only ten and you’re a pro! Try finding this sort of detail on a Walmart toy today.
OK, just kidding on the formats but they do come in different colored plastic.
We even for no reason other than dress up have an antenna on the fender. Not just little whip of plastic, but with a bezel, a spring which will flex and not break, and a ball at the top with the Transogram trademark.
Somewhere we lost this sort of Quality added thinking, and that is missed.
So folks, let’s ride along to check out what’s playing on the screen at Walt Disney s Character Drive In Theater.
The show is about to start and Mickey has just parked his new Transogram. Hope you have fun and don’t mind the little liberty I took in the presentation.
Tonight’s special is not a long skip from the last, it’s to KMPC of Los Angeles with an album produced for Pacific Drive In Theaters.
Discussed in an early post is that in essence the company Pacific Drive in Theaters is still around and known as Pacific Theaters, with a reported 300 screens in California. Today it is predominately an indoor venue, with only one Drive In located in Los Angeles County, and another Drive In at Auburn, Washington.
KMPC “The Station of the Stars” started out in 1927 with the call letters KRLO. It bounced around in name and dial location arriving at 710 kHz and KMPC in 1929 /1930. The station seems to have a storied history of various owners from corporations, to personality investors such as Bing Crosby, Paul Whiteman, Freeman Gosden and Charles Corelland, Harold Lloyd, to Gene Autry’s Golden West Broadcasting Network.
A very good historical link with airchecks & videos is: http://710kmpc.com/history.htm
KMPC had many famous air personalities over the years, some that are still quite well known and iconic.
710 AM is now KSPN (ESPN RADIO), and the KMPC call letters belong to Sporting News Radio and is now located at 1540 AM also with a sports format.
Tonights host from KMPC is John McShane, an all-night DJ from 1954 to 1959. He eventually went into politics serving on the city council of Downey, CA. Big John helped get the American Basketball Association off the ground. His catch phrase for it was ”The Lively League.” John passed away in the 1970s.
This record, a heavy translucent red disc of vinyl, is from 1955. John refers to Ann Richards as a cute little 18 year old at the introduction of “Freddy”, which in case would date it at 1953. John didn’t start till 54′ so this wouldn’t be possible. The Pacific Drive In album label says June 8 to 21 but without a year. Freddy was released (not from Folsom either) in 1955, but this intermission record still could have been from early 56′. The clincher comes after a Glenn Miller song, when he tells us that one was from a air check from 15 years ago, June 2nd 1940.
Roll em Eddie~
In Mexico a fourth century funeral urn was found depicting a corn god with symbols of popcorn in his headdress. Perhaps an emblem of life represented as a spent kernel.
Then a 1,000 year old popped chunk was found in a dry cave in Utah. That one tasted terrible.
So although popcorn has been around a long time, it’s not been till the modern era that it’s become associated with the tasty treats of entertainment and the movies.
As usual, popcorn was introduced to Europeans by the people of the Americas. In 1519 Hernando Cortes recorded that the Aztecs used it as decorations on their statues. One story says when popcorn was heated up the spirit inside got pissed off and exploded. I work with someone like that.
Still not content in 1612 some Frenchmen went out looking for fur, maybe popcorn, finding the Iroquois popping corn in pottery filled with sand placed over a campfire. Processed it was consumed as a form of corn beer and the show started in even less than five minutes.
Early settlers dowdily used it as a sort of breakfast gruel likely because they couldn’t figure out how the Iroquois managed to brew it. A latter form of alchemy consisting of lard, popcorn and molasses came about in the 1700s and served as a suitable substitute. This was christened kettle corn.
The murky recorded history of popcorn seems to end in the mid 1800s where two main types emerge, snowflake and mushroom. Snowflake which is soft and fluffy came out a shining star, while the hard working mushroom variety was usually left in the dark to be covered by caramel. By the 1870s popcorn could be bought at the general store, or enjoyed pre-popped at circuses and fairs.
Then along came the Chicago inventor by the name of Charles Creators.
Experimenting with his steam powered peanut roaster he created the first commercial popcorn machine in 1885. Later in 1893 he introduced his invention on the midway of the Chicago World’s Fair, or officially the World Columbian Exposition.
From here on out popcorn, oil and salt went on to become a very popular combination.
Throughout the land it was enjoyed wherever crowds gathered. Another location for Mr. Creators four wheeled invention came about with the arrival of moving pictures. Patrons overwhelmingly embraced the idea of popcorn with a movie show and went outside the bijou to purchase the treat before during and after.
At first this caused some problems, but theater owners who were already cleaning up the mess decided they might as well add it to their own bottom line by selling it in the first place. By 1945 nearly half the popcorn eaten in the United States was at a movie theater, the other half was probably being made into breakfast gruel.
Oddly popcorn or any other concession was not present at the birth of the Drive In Theater. Quickly however those sales became the buoyant raft that kept Drive Ins afloat.
By the mid-20th century sales of popcorn became closely knit to the changing tides of the entertainment industry. As movie attendance fell, overall sales dropped. Once people started viewing their TV at home while eating popcorn sales again increased. When movie attendance increased, sales spiked again.
Popcorn was a guinea pig for early microwave experiments. It’s fitting that with the proliferation of the microwave oven another jump in sales arrived. Prepackaged and ready to eat, the scalding steam bag of convenience is lurking in almost every home. Today reactionary connoisseurs prepare and flavor popcorn in every way imaginable and the face of popcorn evolves.
As for popcorn magic, that has never left us.
Abracadabra Zea Mays Everta !
Shrimp dinner on me everyone!
Ok Ok here’s a new post. Not only do we love Drive Ins but also have a drive to own one. Years go by, a mortgage comes along, a blessing of kids, and the Drive In is yet to happen. There is one thing we have though, the train ride. Something for our kids, it’s worked out very well for their Halloween parties. At dusk we’ve shown 16mm Donald Duck staring in Trick or Treat, then the party kids go for a haunted train ride. This posted video was made the next morning. Someday when we own a Drive In we’ll have the biggest double feature Halloween party , with of course a haunted train ride. Till then….