Where did all the Drive-ins go?
Drive-in theaters used to dot the Utah landscape, from Montezuma Creek to East Carbon, from St. George to Logan, and everywhere in between.
Families would pile in the station wagon on a summer night with a picnic basket full of sandwiches, the kids in pajamas. Many drive-ins had playgrounds for the kids to use before darkness fell and the movie started. The Park-Vu in Millcreek even had a merry-go-round.
But then multiplex theaters arrived, and instead of one movie choice, people suddenly had many choices under one roof, and year-round as well. Drive-in attendance faded, land prices went up, and drive-in properties had land developers salivating.
A few drive-ins managed to hold on and still bring the car movie experience to a new generation. The Redwood Drive-In in West Valley City, the Motor-Vu Drive-In in Riverdale, Basin Drive-In in Mt. Pleasant, Echo Drive-In in Roosevelt, Motor-Vu in Tooele, and the classic car drive-in at Shooting Star RV Resort in Escalante.
How did they do it when more than 22 other drive-ins went out of business?
A different kind of drive-in movie—adapting to technology to fit a more modern world
According to Larry Healey, long time manager of Redwood Drive-In, it was a combination of things.
“We remodeled in the late ‘70s and went from a single screen to four screens. Then, in the 90s, we switched from the speakers on the pole to an AM, then an FM signal so people could hear it on their radio. People got better sound with FM. They could listen in stereo and the speakers became obsolete.”
For the grand opening after the remodel, Redwood showed Smokey and the Bandit. “We were the only drive-in in SLC playing Smokey and I think it still holds the record for the longest-running movie at a drive-in,” Larry says.
Brent Coleman is the boots on the ground, jack-of-all-trades, owner of the Motor-Vu Drive-In in Riverdale. His brothers/partners, Bruce and Dale, live in California and North Carolina, so the day-to-day operations fall to Brent.
The Coleman brothers are second-generation owners of the Motor-Vu. Brent relates a similar experience about keeping their business open.
“The Motor-Vu opened in 1947, and my dad, Howard, started working there in 1952 as a lot boy picking up trash, and finally working his way up to manager and eventually buying it. Dad realized he needed to make some changes to stay in business, so he added a second screen in 1982, a third in 1987, and a 4th in 1997. I would say he persevered—he never gave up.”
Another thing that helped the business was when nearby drive-ins folded. Drive-ins in Davis and Ogden were sold to developers, leaving the Motor-Vu as the only drive-in option in the area. Brent also credits FM radio signals as helping business, but says new technology can be a double-edged sword.
Five years ago, they were forced to buy digital projectors, replacing film projectors as film became obsolete. It was a big investment, and many other drive-ins across the country closed under the pressure. “Fortunately, through my brother, we were able to purchase used digital projectors, otherwise we would be gone, too,” Brent says.
Both the Redwood and Motor-Vu offer weekend swap meets that help keep the drive-ins solvent. The swap meets are year-round ventures as opposed to the seasonal nature of outdoor movies.
When asked if he is ever tempted to sell, Brent says, “I am not interested in selling. I am content, and until I am closer to retirement, I’ll keep plugging away. It might end with me, you never know.”
Summer movie memories
Crazy things still happen at the drive-in. Brent tells a story from about five years ago. “We are just down the street from a Walmart, and someone in the parking lot saw a couple putting two kids in the trunk of their car. They followed them for a bit and then called the police, who turned out en masse. Police from Riverdale, South Ogden, and Roy all showed up, surrounding the car with guns drawn. It turns out that they were just trying to sneak the kids in and avoid the $2 entry fee.”
Movies under the stars, with the smell of hot dogs and popcorn blowing on the breeze, can be magical. So gather up the kids, put ‘em in their pj’s, pack some sandwiches, and head to one of Utah’s few remaining drive-in movie experiences.
Do it soon! Summer doesn’t last forever.
Redwood Drive-in, 3688 S Redwood Road, West Valley City
Motor-VuDrive-in, 5368 S 1050 W, Riverdale
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