Curtains for the drive-in

Outdoor flicks first shown here in 1948

Michelle Monroe

By Michelle Monroe

Executive Editor

The Facts

Owned by

‘The movies was the greatest thing.’

- Harold Ryan, Jr., former co-owner

ST. ALBANS — The St. Albans Drive-in has seen its last picture show.

Theater manager Anthony Gamache, who chose not to comment further, confirmed the closure this week.

Built in 1948 by Harold Ryan, Sr., and his wife, Gertrude, the drive-in was just the second theater of its kind in Vermont, according to Harold Ryan, Jr.

Ryan, Jr., was two when his parents built the theater 66 years ago, and he worked at the family’s business into his twenties.

“The movies was the greatest thing,” he said.

Others thought so, too. The theater was often so full its proprietors “couldn’t get more cars in,” said Ryan.

Admission was just a quarter per person and children under 12 were free. Popcorn cost a dime and a hot dog was a quarter.

Pennies were needed for change. Ice-cold sodas were seven cents.

The sodas were chilled with blocks of ice from the ice plant on the Walnut Street Extension in St. Albans City, explained Ryan. The plant’s workers delivered the ice to homes and businesses.

Ice blocks delivered to the drive-in weighed between 200 and 300 pounds. The sodas were placed around the ice block, with pieces chipped off and put between them. “They were ice cold, I’ll tell you,” said Ryan. After reaching into the bin to get the bottles, “Your hands were freezing,” he said.

To listen to the film, customers hung a speaker inside their cars, usually from the driver’s side window. The speaker was connected to a post. In more recent years drive-ins have moved to audio access via vehicles’ radios.

Asked what movies were especially popular, Ryan said he could not recall. One film that likely drew a crowd was the “The St. Albans Raid,” which played in 1954.

In addition to working at the concession stand, Ryan sold tickets, helped with the projectors, mowed the lawn and changed the marquis. From April to October the Ryans and their employees worked seven days a week from 5 to 10 p.m.

The younger Ryan and his future wife, Brenda, also made the brochures that were sent to Canadian customers. The brochures advertising coming attractions went out every two weeks to 500 homes in Canada. Ryan said he and Brenda drove to Canada to mail them, because it cost only a penny each.

“We had a lot of Canadian trade,” said Ryan.

Unlike now, it wasn’t possible to watch a movie at home. Television was new, and many people didn’t have one. The selection of shows was limited. “It didn’t hurt for many years because they didn’t have much on television,” he said.

It wasn’t even necessary to have a car to watch the show. “A lot of people used to come and put blankets in the front row and watch the movie,” said Ryan. They were let in for free.

Lines of cars waiting to get in also meant lines waiting to get out, and Ryan said he often drew traffic duty, directing the cars out of the drive-in after the show.

When Ryan’s sister, June, also known as “Honey,” married Ralph Dexter, his parents gave them a share of theater as a wedding present. Ryan-Dexter Enterprises then owned the theater, but his father still controlled it.

The state began planning the construction of Interstate 89 in the early 1960s, and the elder Ryan was concerned about the impact it might have on his business. Initial plans had the interstate running just 20 feet from the property line. Convinced the interstate would ruin the drive-in, Ryan Sr. sold it in 1967 to Paul and Celey Gamache.

When the theater was first opened, Ryan’s father would rent movies from a distributor in Boston. Any money made at the box office was theirs.

Eventually, the distributors switched to a model where they got a share of the box office and the theater owners still paid to get the films.

The movies were on reels that had to be spliced together. If the film was damaged, the theater owner was charged.

Last year, distributors stopped shipping movies on reels, moving to a digital format and forcing theater owners to upgrade their projectors.

The late Paul Gamache, who also owned the Welden Theater, opted to upgrade the projector at the downtown facility, but not the one at the drive-in. According to the Los Angeles Times, conversion costs were much higher for drive-ins, at least $70,000 per screen.

The greater distance between the projector and the screen means drive-in projectors need more powerful bulbs. With digital projection, booths also would have to be upgraded with special glass, more vents and better air conditioning as well as an Internet connection, the Times reported.

This year, no films have been nor will be shown at the St. Albans Drive-in, and the property is up for sale.

It marks the end of an era, not only for St. Albans, but also for the nation. The first drive-in was built in New Jersey in 1933. They spread across the U.S., reaching their peak popularity in the 1950s and 1960s.

Drive-ins once accounted for 25 percent of the nation’s movie screens. In 2013, they were just 1.5 percent, with further declines expected as owners chose not to convert to digital.

In 2012, there were just seven drive-ins left in Vermont. This week, an Internet search turned up just three.

  • So incredibly sad to hear this. This drive-in was a truly unique and original landmark to the area. I hope someone buys this and keeps its legacy going, it has so much potential that was wasted the last few years.

  • Ladybug798

    I’m really sad to read this too. I love nostalgia. We’re losing a St. Albans landmark and historic site in my eyes. It’s one more fun place that I remember from my childhood that will be gone. We used to have the Bay Bowling Alley, The Rocket Miniature Golf Course, “The Bite” snack bar and recently the St. Albans Bowling Alley. All we’ll have left is the Welden theater. I wish I was rich so I could keep it going. Is there anyone out there who wishes it was still running?

  • lmb

    It would be nice if whatever large corporation has its eye on this property, it would see the value in reviving the SA drive-in to a state of the art facility of affordable family entertainment. (This concept of course is anathema to the corporate doctrine of a higher profit margin every quarter) Another cookie cutter big box store doesn’t seem necessary–there are plenty in the area already. We’re making this state look like all the others with all the same fast food restaurants on every corner of every town, all the same stores everywhere.
    Why not revitalize something and make it a place to go that isn’t shopping. Just because people can get movies 24/7, doesn’t mean they don’t like to see them on a big screen, esp a twofer bargain and taking kids to a drive-in where they can play safely on the swings/etc, while you watch a movie or they watch a movie–best of both worlds!

  • alleta28

    Would love to head up a Kickstarter campaign to convert to digital, coop, etc. Anyone interested?

  • Jewels LaFleche

    So very sad to this happen ……Drive in’s was a huge part of my life as a kid and adult right up till the two in central Vermont closed down years ago…….

  • Ian cate

    it’s too bad …part of the problem i bet is the difficulty crossing the border.That must be a fair amount of revenue lost.