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For one night, the drive-in movie lived again

May 10, 2020 By Randy Tucker

On June 6, 1933, an icon of Americana opened in Camden, New Jersey. That evening, the Park-In Theater, the first drive-in movie theater in the world, opened to rave reviews.

In 1947 there were an estimated 150 drive-in theaters in the entire nation. Four years later there were more than 4,000. Every state, along with the territories of Alaska and Hawaii, had at least one.

Drive-ins were big business. Kids loved them, especially teenagers. Preachers and zealots decried them as "passion pits" and the "devil's playground," home to elicit behavior by less-than-chaste youth.

They were fabulous.

I've been to a few drive-ins across the country over the years. There was one in Blytheville, Arkansas, my parents took us to. We went to a couple of others when dad was stationed at Travis Air Force Base, and then a few miles north at Mather Air Force Base, in north-central California.

The ones I remember the best were in Fremont County. I went to the Diane Drive-In in Lander a few times, but my favorites will always be the West and the Knight in Riverton.

The West's screen was where the Gordman's Store now stands in Riverton on West Main. It was a quiet, tree-lined, dark drive-in that featured the best movie food I've ever eaten, thanks to the Dash-In on the south side of the complex.

One side of the little building was the Dash-In drive-in restaurant, while the other was the concession stand for the West Drive-In movie audience. It also served as the projection booth.

Those were the days of the dancing hotdogs, the singing dill pickle, and the call for "fresh, hot, buttered, popcorn."

The West was where you took a date, or where your youth group loaded 30 kids in the back of a farm truck for dollar-a-carload nights.

The Knight Drive-In was on the south side of town. You entered about where the Western Heritage Center museum stands now. The Knight wasn't such a good place to take a date. Sure, a lot of guys took their girlfriends to the show there, but there were other attractions.

Younger kids rode the little train up by the big screen, played on the swings, the slide and merry go rounds, then hustled back to the car before the show began.

For teen-agers, it was a place to go to get into a little trouble.

There was always a fight about to happen, just getting started, or about to escalate into a full-fledged brawl when guys from Lander came over.

You could find older teenagers and 20-somethings from out of town making the trip for the same reason. The kids from Riverton, Lander, Arapahoe, Ethete and Shoshoni were just as eager to get in a little scuffle. It never amounted to much in those days. Fights rarely did. Usually, they were a little fun.

Our young family watched "Hoosiers" in the rain in our 1981 Subaru in August of 1987 at the Knight.

Sue and I watched from the front seat, while Brian, less than a year old, slept in his car seat in the back. It was the last drive-in movie we watched in Riverton.

At one time my friend Bob Steen, the owner of Jiffy Rental and I seriously considered building a drive-in theater on our property where Webbwood Road meets North 8th West, but we never pulled the trigger on the idea.

Last Friday the drive-in made its return to Fremont County, in a most unlikely place.

Riverton, Lander, and even Shoshoni back in the 1950s and 1960s had drive-ins, but Pavillion did not -- until last Friday.

The town council erected an inflatable 30-foot screen, set up an FM radio sound system, and invited people to come to the drive-in at the Pavillion fairgrounds on the south end of town.

We arrived at 7:45 p.m., in the middle of the rush. Cars were lined up as people tried to find a place to view "Call of the Wild," starring Harrison Ford.

A generation has come and gone since the drive-in was the place to be on summer nights, especially Friday and Saturday. The etiquette of previous generations was gone.

People drove in and out throughout the show with their headlights on. In the old days, even headlights set on high beam weren't as bright as the backup lights on many of the tricked-out trucks that were there than night. There were so many headlights flashing throughout the show that it was hard to see the screen.

The concession stand wasn't prepared for the big turnout, with long lines and wait times up to an hour. The sound system didn't quite extend to the furthest cars. The screen wasn't big enough, or high enough.

But who cares? It was a fabulous experience, one I hope they try again.

One thing that no amount of planning can prepare you for is the Wyoming weather.

Darkness settled, the FM sound improved, with night falling and the screen grew brighter as the sun dropped behind the Wind River Mountains.

With about 15 minutes remaining in the film, as the climactic scene of good and evil played out, just seconds before Buck, the canine hero of the film came to the rescue, a 45 mph wind roared down from the Owl Creek Mountains.

The gust blew the screen over, knocked it from its moorings, and the show was over.

Still, it was a great time, a memorable time for those who never knew the joys of the gathering darkness on a warm summer night with a gaggle of laughing friends.

Please try it again, Pavillion. Thanks for the experience.

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Editor's note: Staff writer Randy Tucker is a retired public school educator.

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