Messenger file photo
‘The movies was the greatest thing.’
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.