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Star-Studded Cinema

Lake George drive-ins, 1952. Photograph courtesy of Dean Color

Sedans and station wagons peel off the state highway, headlights sweeping toward a field where other vehicles wait. The preview for Psycho swirls on the screen, soundtrack blaring. Teenagers line up at the concession stand for boxes of Good & Plenty and bottles of Squirt; little kids in pajamas scrunch pillows and unfurl blankets in backseats. Mom kicks off her Keds as Dad yawns, stretches an arm around her and relaxes behind the wheel. It’s summer 1960 in the Adirondacks and a half-dozen drive-in theaters are showing cinema under the stars.

Ray Brook, Crown Point, Pottersville and Tupper Lake all had drive-in theaters that catered to locals and tourists alike from May through September. Lake George, the ever throbbing heart of popular culture, had two. Ringing the Adirondack Park was a necklace of more plein air movie houses in Malone, Massena, Lyons Falls, Hudson Falls and South Glens Falls. The experience of seeing a Hollywood thriller like Creature from the Black Lagoon was made all the more exciting when punctuated by the blood-curdling shriek of a screech owl in the nearby woods.

A few of these Truman-era relics linger into the 21st century, including the twin-screen Ozoner 29 and El Rancho, in Broadalbin; Glen Drive-in, just a popcorn box toss outside the Blue Line in Queensbury; and Watertown’s Black River Drive-in.

There is an Adirondack connection to the birth of this modern American phenomenon: Richard M. Hollingshead was working at his father’s Auto Whiz Products in Camden, New Jersey, and one summer he tinkered with a Kodak projector mounted on the hood of the family car. He aimed the lens at a sheet tacked between two trees and sat back to watch the show. He received a patent for the new technology and, in June 1933, launched the first drive-in. Hollingshead’s slogan—”The whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are”—nailed the appeal, along with rock-bottom ticket prices of two bits per car and a quarter per passenger. With two partners he created the Park-It chain of outdoor theaters that spread across the country.

In the 1940s Hollingshead commissioned Saranac Lake architect William G. Distin to build a lodge on Blue Mountain Lake. Minnowbrook is widely regarded as the last of the true Great Camps. The sprawling place reflected the owner’s many interests, with a waterfront floatplane hangar, greenhouse and tennis courts—though it’s unclear if outdoor films were ever shown there. In 1953, as Adirondack drive-in theaters were gaining popularity, Hollingshead donated Minnowbrook to Syracuse University to be used as a conference center.

Most of the region’s drive-ins were built from 1948 to 1950; all that was needed was reliable road access, a relatively flat spot, a good source of power and few neighbors. In Tupper Lake the 300-car drive-in on Routes 3/30 was built by Leon Dechene, whose enormous Cadillac was the base for the sign that heralded the buck-per-carload shows.

Chalice Dechene, Leon’s widow and a retired librarian, took tickets, organized the concessions and even did maintenance. “Leon told me I could change the floodlights that lit up the screen, so I climbed up that high screen. Leaning out over the top I could barely get both arms around the fixtures,” she recalls. The Tupper Lake Drive-in was well documented in her home movies, aerial photos, flyers and newspaper ads.

Lake George mayor Robert Blais recalls the heyday of outdoor movies in the southeastern Adirondacks. “There were actually three drive-ins open when I came to Lake George in 1956. One in Pottersville, one at the corner of Route 9 and 9L [now Waterslide World] and another on Route 9L [now the Lake George Elementary School],” he says. Starlight Open Air Theater, on Glendale Road at Route 9 in Pottersville, had one screen, room for 360 cars and was widely known as “the heart of the mountains showplace.” Though it closed in 1974, scattered vestiges of the cinema remain behind fuel-oil company buildings.

There’s little left that marks the Sara-Placid Drive-in on Route 86 in Ray Brook, and the clearing was used for parking during the 1980 Winter Olympics. Today 30-foot-tall trees are taking over. In Crown Point, Jan’s Country Diner occupies the old concession stand of the drive-in on Route 9. There’s a campground where cars once parked on sultry nights.

Do you have an Adirondack drive-in memory to share? Send your true-life, G-rated recollections to aledit@adirondacklife.com with the subject line “drive-in movies in the Adirondacks” and we may use your quote in an article next year in honor of the drive-in theater’s 80th anniversary.

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