Dallas’ First Two Drive-In Theaters — 1941
by Paula Bosse
by Paula Bosse
The drive-in theater arrived in Dallas on June 20, 1941, the night that “Give Us Wings,” starring the Dead End Kids, played as the first feature of the Northwest Hi-Way Drive-In, located at the northwest corner of Northwest Highway and Hillcrest. It stood on twelve-and-a-half acres and had a 450-car capacity. The drive-in was opened by W. G. Underwood and Claude Ezell, who had opened similar outdoor movie theaters in San Antonio and Houston.
The Hi-Way (which appears to have usually been spelled “Highway”) featured something I had never seen in drive-in design: cars parked on terraced ramps, where the car behind was always slightly higher than the one in front of it so as to offer an unobstructed view, and speakers were on stands embedded in cement and were placed between cars (no in-car speakers).
Rain was apparently not a problem in this brave new world of outdoor entertainment — if it rained the show would go on (even though the opening was delayed by a few days because of rainy weather) — but fog was a problem, and in case of such weather, movie-goers would be issued a “fog-check” to come back another (fog-free) night.
A newspaper article appeared a few days before the theater’s opening, explaining what a drive-in was and how it worked. Here is the last paragraph:
According to Mr. Underwood 80 per cent of the people who attend drive-in theaters are non-theatergoers. These include people with children and no one to leave them with, semi-invalids, cripples and corpulent individuals who find it embarrassing to attend the regulation theaters. At the Drive-In there is no necessity for getting out of the car, an attendant meets you at the gate, takes your money and buys your tickets, while another wipes your windshield. A third pilots the car to a space on one of the ramps. These are widely spaced enough that any car may leave at any time. (Dallas Morning News, “Northwest Highway Drive-In To Open Tuesday, Rain Or Stars,” by Fairfax Nisbet, June 14, 1941)
The the weather eventually behaved, and the opening on June 20, 1941 was a success, with an almost-capacity audience. The drive-in had arrived in Big D.
Two weeks later — on July 4, 1941 — Underwood and Ezell opened the Chalk Hill Drive-In in Oak Cliff, at about West Davis and Cockrell Hill Road. It looked almost exactly like the Northwest Highway drive-in, down to the great big star on the outside of it (to be replaced with a clown mural years later). The very first feature was “The Invisible Woman” with Virginia Bruce and John Barrymore.
Both theaters had successful and relatively long lives. The Northwest Highway drive-in closed in 1963 when the land was purchased for development (the most notable occupant of the new businesses that occupied that corner was probably the fondly remembered Kip’s restaurant).
The Chalk Hill Drive-In closed in the late 1970s, and from what I can tell, it spent a couple of decades abandoned and decaying.
A few random tidbits.
Here’s a 1945 aerial shot over SMU looking north — the drive-in is in the middle of all that wide-open Caruth farmland, seen just left of Hillcrest (the Hillcrest Mausoleum, built in 1936, can be seen to the right of Hillcrest; the Caruth Homestead is at the far right edge of the photo).
Here’s a detail, showing it up-close:
Two aerial shots by the United States Army Air Forces, taken for a USDA survey in 1945. First, the Northwest Highway Drive-In, with Northwest Highway running horizontally in the photo and Hillcrest running vertically.
This aerial photo from 1947 shows a view to the northwest, with Hillcrest running from lower left corner to top right — it appears the photo was taken to show the new apartment complex just north of the parking area of the drive-in.
And Chalk Hill, with Highway 80 running horizontally:
Chalk Hill again, this photo from 1973, with the clown face and circus theme that many remember:
Photo by Steve Fitch, Smithsonian American Art Museum
A couple of amusing livestock-oriented drive-in-related human-interest blurbs appeared in the pages of The Dallas Morning News:
Some cattle going from Waco to Wisconsin stampeded through University Park when their truck caught fire on Greenville. Police herded most of the steers into a Northwest Highway drive-in theater. Five were found nuzzling zinnias at a home on Southwestern. (Lorrie Brooks, DMN, Sept. 18, 1952)
Cattle in 1952, donkeys in 1955:
University Park police early Wednesday captured two pet donkeys who escaped their pen at the Northwest Highway Drive-In Theater during the night. A startled passerby spotted the two donkeys grazing contentedly on a lawn at Centenary and Hillcrest, about four blocks from the theater…. Bill Duckett, manager of the theater, reported the loss of the two pets, which he keeps for the entertainment of the theater’s small-fry patrons. (DMN, May 26, 1955)
Sources & Notes
I’m not sure of the source of the top photo, but I’m pretty sure of when it was taken: the marquee shows that the movie “Tall, Dark and Handsome,” starring Cesar Romero, was playing; that movie ran at the Northwest Hi-Way Drive-In July 12-14, 1941.
The aerial photo (by Capt. Lloyd N. Young) showing SMU and the land that lay north of it is from the Highland Park United Methodist Church Archives; I found it in Diane Galloway’s fantastic book The Park Cities, A Photohistory.
The two aerial photos are details of larger photographs from the collection of Dallas Aerial Photographs, 1945 USDA Survey, Edwin J. Foscue Map Library, Central University Libraries, Southern Methodist University. The full (labeled) Northwest Highway photo is here; the Chalk Hill photo is here.
Two other aerial photos (from 1958) are interesting because they are a bit closer and because you can see the terraced ramps — they can be seen here (apologies for the watermarks — photos from HistoricAerials.com).
The Wikipedia entry for the Drive-In Theater is here.
The patent (with illustrations) for the drive-in theater, filed by Richard M. Hollingshead, Jr. in 1932 is here (it’s a very interesting read). I had no idea a drive-in movie theater could be patented. This cool drawing is part of it (click it to see it larger):
A great history of drive-ins in the Dallas-Fort Worth area can be found in the article “Starlit Skies and Memories” by Susan and Don Sanders; it appeared in the Spring, 1999 issue of Legacies, and can be read here. Great photos! (Who knew there was a drive-in on South Lamar — the Starlite — which catered exclusively to the black community?)
Copyright © 2015 Paula Bosse. All Rights Reserved.