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Galveston County TX
Galveston County
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Galveston, Texas

By Clint Skinner
When people hear the name Galveston, the last on the list of things to think about is drive-in theaters. Yet, the city played a small part in the history of cinema. It served as the location for the first drive-in built in Texas, which also became the third one made in the United States and the first to be built on beachfront property.

Watching movies outdoors was nothing new during the Roaring Twenties. It happened all the time at plazas and parks, usually during public gatherings, holiday celebrations, and social events. On some occasions, people even got the chance to watch the silent films from their vehicles. However, the idea of actually building a permanent theater so people could enjoy movies in the comfort of their car didn't come into fruition until 1933.

Richard Hollingshead, Jr., the sales manager for his father's company Whiz Auto Products, started looking for a way to encourage families to spend evenings together watching movies. At the time, children went to the cinema throughout the day while parents visited during the evening. Feeling that the automobile would be the way to bring these two groups together, Hollingshead began using his electronic tinkering skills to develop a new way to enjoy Hollywood entertainment.

As a first step, he attached a screen to some trees in his yard and installed a speaker system behind it. Richard then adjusted the volume one notch and tested the affect for each position of the car window. After completing all the notches, he moved to another car at a different location then repeated the same procedure. During these tests, he also noted the affects of adverse weather on the audio quality in addition to checking the visibility of the screen. This was done by using lawn sprinklers. Full screen visibility proved to be the final obstacle. To prevent cars from blocking the view of others, Richard tested the space between vehicles and adjusted the height of the two front tires. Using various blocks, he managed to find the perfect angle for an unobstructed view.

Hollingshead applied for a patent for his invention in 1932 and started construction a year later. With the help of investors Willie Warren Smith, Edward Ellis and Oliver Willets, his concept became a reality. The Automobile Movie Theatre opened its gates in Camden, New Jersey on June 6, 1933. Those wanting to attend had to pay a quarter for the car and a quarter for each person in the car. However, the total amount which had to be paid could never exceed a dollar regardless of the number of passengers.

Shankweiler's Drive-In opened in April 1934 as the second theater of its kind in the United States. Located in Orefield, Pennsylvania, it is still in operation and holds the honor of being the world's oldest drive-in. Three months after the theater began business, another drive-in appeared on the scene in the unlikeliest of places.

Houston architect Louis P. Josserand developed a new version of the first drive-in sometime around July 1, 1933. It resembled Hollingshead's invention in every way except one. Instead of having a single parking ramp for car owners to have a better view, it would have two, each one joining a drive-over ramp to allow cars to move forward as well as backward onto one of the aisles. Removing the guard rails and making the ramp tops round allowed for easier maneuverability. After Josserand completed the plans, he submitted a patent for the design and contacted his business associate A. H. Emenhiser. With a construction supervisor at his side, the only thing left to do was find a place to build the theater.

Josserand wanted Houston to be the home for his project and found some land owned by T. D. Dunn, Jr. Unfortunately, Dunn rejected the offer to lease the area because the whole thing seemed far-fetched. The drive-in was still a relatively new concept with only two theaters in existence, both open for less than a year. With the financial viability in question and the construction's price tag reaching 30,000 dollars, Dunn felt the venture was too risky and told Louis to look elsewhere. Louis felt sure he could convince Dunn to accept the offer by building a smaller theater as an experiment. For the location, he chose Galveston. It would be placed directly on a beach near the intersection of Sixth Street and Seawall Boulevard at a cost of only 1,500 dollars.

Work began in June 1934 under Emenhiser's supervision. Joseph W. Townsend and his brother Richard built the movie screen and ticket house. The screen was placed near the shore's edge, forcing visitors to face their cars toward the sea. The crew erected a fence around the perimeter of the parking area except for the section near the screen, fearing the tides would create an unsafe environment. This became a very popular spot for tourists and locals because the open space allowed them to enter the theater from the waters, though the less courageous still managed to get a free show. Behind the screen, the speaker system was installed by Bernard McComb, a local radio station manager. He also held the responsibility of checking and troubleshooting the equipment when the theater opened.

Within the drive-in's perimeter, workers used beach sand to build two driveways, each with two rows of parking ramps. The double inclines stood fourteen inches high and were made out of pure sand. To make them hard, the employees had to make the sand wet every day before the show started. This presented a big problem because the wind would blow the sand when it dried, forcing the crew to grade the ramps again. There was also the occasional problem of people getting their car wheels stuck in the ground. Those without a car could sit on one of the six benches located in the back of the parking area. The whole theater was illuminated by red and green lights when nothing was showing.

As construction came to a conclusion, Bernard McComb rode around town in a sound truck to advertise Galveston's latest attraction. The Drive-In Short Reel Theater opened on July 5, 1934 and ran seven nights a week. During its tenure, the theater showed a variety of one-reel films including news reels, comedies, cartoons, documentaries, and short subjects. It stayed open until two in the morning on Saturdays and midnight on all the other days. Patrons wanting to see the films paid twenty-five cents a car while pedestrians spent ten cents for adults and five cents for children.

All seemed to go well for the new theater until a Category 1 hurricane decided to make a special visit. Originating near North Carolina, it traveled through the Gulf of Mexico and landed close to Lamar on July 25th. The storm caused eleven deaths and two million dollars in damage during its rampage. The Drive-In Short Reel Theater was one of the casualties, never to see another evening of operation.

Although the venture lasted for less than a month, it gave Texans the first taste of an American invention which would soon play an important part in society. Texas would become one of the leaders in the drive-in business and maintain that status throughout the long history of the entertainment venue. Although their numbers decreased to a level that suggested extinction was near, the drive-in never died. At the current time, there are sixteen in Texas, the latest one opening in Lewisville during 2016.

© Clint Skinner
May 10, 2018

Author's note : The address of the Drive-In Short Reel Theater was 600 Seawall Boulevard. The entrance was at the current spot of Wings Beachwear next to McDonald's. Please remember that there is nothing to signify its existence.
Drive-in theatres
See also
Texas Drive-In Theatres



Dallas Morning News Archives



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Josserand v. Taylor. Court of Customs and Patent Appeals. Case # 138 F.2d 58 (1943)

Segrave, Kerry. Drive-in Theaters : A History from Their Inception in 1933. McFarland & Company, Inc. : Jefferson, North Carolina and London, 2006

Welling, David. Cinema Houston : From Nickelodeon to Megaplex. University of Texas Press : Austin, 2010

Related Topics:
Galveston, Texas
Texas Theaters
Texas Storms


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