Say you were playing tennis on the Durango High School courts 60 years ago just as it was getting dark.
While you were sweating and grunting with every forehand and overhead, others would be driving around trying to position themselves best to see the nightly flick – let’s say, “Hellcats of the Navy” starring Ronald Reagan and Nancy Davis. These drivers wouldn’t be too pleased with what you were doing.
See, you’d be toiling with your wooden Jack Kramer Autograph racket right in front of the drive-in movie screen.
OK, I took some liberties there. The courts weren’t there six decades ago, nor was the high school. The point is this city has changed a bunch since the heady post-World War II days. Throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s, there was a thriving drive-in movie theater just east of Main Avenue and north of Junction Creek. Cars parked, kids got into trouble (usually minor) and high-schoolers necked – all in the spot where DHS’s tennis courts and Kevin Walden Memorial baseball field sit now.
It took a bit of research to put the history of the drive-in into focus, but here’s what a search of Durango Herald archives (both at the Herald and the Durango Public Library), some research by the Animas Museum and people’s memories revealed:
1950: The Basin Drive-In, 2250 Main Ave., was up and running, with “2 complete shows each night.” A sample evening’s showing was “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” with color cartoons and selected short subjects, according to an advertisement in the Durango Herald-Democrat. Price was 60 cents for adults and 9 cents for children. “Remember! There is no Baby Sitters expense,” the ad emphasized.
If the drive-in was open before that, which appears unlikely, it wasn’t advertised in the Herald. The Kiva and Durango theaters, both open in 1949, would welcome you inside.
1951: You could see Randolph Scott in “Colt .45” at the Basin. “Come as you are in the family car.”
1956: The Basin was renamed the Knox Drive-In.
1957: A rival opened: The Rocket Drive-In took off south of town, next to where Escalante Middle School is now.
“Jeez, that’s a long way out of town,” Tom Lloyd, then a Durango schoolboy, remembers thinking. He would later run the projector at the Rocket.
1958: The Knox became the Bell Drive-In, which it remained through 1962.
1963: The Bell disappeared from Herald ads and also from the phone book. The Rocket was now the only game in town. Meanwhile, the Buckskin Drive-In opened on the northern outskirts of Ignacio.
“Every little town had at least one drive-in,” says Fred Rector, who moved to Durango in 1951 just before starting seventh grade.
Rector says that Cortez had two, Farmington had at least two and Dove Creek and Cuba, New Mexico, also had one.
Both of Durango’s drive-ins seemed to do good business, Rector remembers. At the time, there wasn’t much else going on, and television reception was still spotty at best.
“It was a good time,” says Rector, who owns the Kachina Kitchen restaurant. “I don’t think I ever went to the drive-in where it wasn’t a good time.”
So if you were there in the late 1950s and looked away from the screen, back toward the outlying rows of the drive-in, you might notice some kids sitting on the gravel next to one of the speaker stands.
“Usually, there were no cars back there,” recalls Jerry Poer, who would occasionally sneak into the drive-in with several of his young friends from the neighborhood. “We would do whatever it took to watch a movie and not pay for it.”
Charlie DiFerdinando, born in 1954, grew up just to the north of the drive-in on what was still farm land. His grandfather ran what was called a “truck farm” – he would deliver produce to restaurants and stores downtown.
The Knoxes were young Charlie’s only direct neighbors. DiFerdinando remembers that the Knox house was built into the backside of the movie screen and that it was propped on stilts.
Main Avenue “was just a little county two-lane road” that wouldn’t be widened until about the mid-1960s, DiFerdinando says. Durango and Animas City were still growing together; it wasn’t that long ago, 1947, that the former had annexed the latter.
Understandably, the drive-in left a huge mark on DiFerdinando. He enjoyed the playground in front of the movie screen. Sometimes, he’d take a blanket and sit under a speaker to watch a movie.
“When a car drove up we had to get out of their way,” he says.
When his parents wanted him to come home, they’d flip the yard light on and off.
Most customers entered the drive-in from Main and paid their entrance fee right next to the Knox home, where Ronnie Knox might be out working on his ’54 Ford, Rector says. Then you’d drive along Junction Creek for a ways and take a left into one of the many rows.
And when you found your spot, then-teenager Allen Small remembers, the driver would open the trunk, so the friends you’d smuggled in could get out. Eventually, the drive-in operators caught on to the trick and made teenagers open the trunk before entering, Small says with a grin.
It seems amazing that Durango could support two drive-ins, but it did from 1957 to 1962. War movies and Westerns were the rage at the time. Darryl Hunt says he saw Elvis Presley in “Jailhouse Rock” at the Bell. Rector remembers the Rocket was nicer and had better concessions – legendary burgers, for one.
The Bell closed after the summer of 1962. By 1976, the DiFerdinando farm and house was gone, and the new high school fully took over the land.
The Rocket’s last hurrah was the summer of 2004. By then it was one of just a dozen drive-in screens still operating in Colorado. At the apex of popularity, there were about 4,000 drive-ins in America. An estimate last year showed 357 remained.
But nothing is permanent. As some really astute French guy said about 170 years ago: The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Sixty years from now, people will look back with longing at the old days when you fueled your transport vehicle at something called a gas station. And at those ancient times when a newspaper was delivered daily to your doorstep.
email@example.com. John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.
This story was changed from its original publication to correct the name of the baseball field.