Archive for February, 2020

Drive-In Footprints in the 21st Century

Telephone Rd - 11020 Telephone Rd

Telephone Road Drive-in

First off, a hard local fact. Most all of Houston’s drive-in theatres are long gone. They had their heyday in the fifties, sixties, and into the early seventies. Then, one by one, they slowly died off. Many of them fell due to rising property values. The final nail in the coffin came with the advent of cable and home video. The last Houston outdoor theatre to arrive, the I-45 Drive-in, was the last to leave. It opened in 1982 and operated for a full decade before its closing.

The one remaining drive-in theatre in the region is the Showboat in Hockley, a relative newbie as it opened in 2005. Fifteen years later, it’s still running double bills on two screens. More on this later.

For the most part, architecture leaves no trace. When a building is razed, the property is quickly repurposed with another structure. That is the way of things, especially in Houston where demolition is a daily event, as common as the dirt left behind after the wrecking crew leaves. Any reminders of the older structure are in the form of old photos and memories of those who attended. That issue represented one of the major hurdles for me when writing Cinema Houston, since a majority of the theatres in the book (both indoor and out) were snuffed out years before I typed a single word.

Drive-ins, however, are a unique beast in this respect. Yes, all of Houston’s outdoor theatres are extinct, like dinosaurs and rotary phones (and if you don’t know what that is, you’ve just shown your age). Many were replaced by new developments, retail centers, business parks, and residential subdivisions (to quote the brilliant Firesign Theater comedy team, “Civilization, ho!”). But in a few cases, there are ghosts left behind of older times.

With GPS so much a part of our daily lives, we don’t often take into account the historical possibilities of satellite imagery. Google Earth/Maps offers a unique way of rolling back the clock while in search of architectural fossils. In the case of the drive-in, their size and structure leaves behind a unique footprint that occasionally withstands redevelopment. It may not be visible from the ground, but when looking down from a bird’s eye view, patterns can be clearly seen.

 I recently reviewed the list of the local drive-in theatres that once stood As expected, a majority of those properties are host to homes and office buildings. There is no evidence of what once drew carloads of people, some in pairs and others with their kids in tow for a pleasant evening and a movie or two.

However, in just a few instances, the bones of a drive-in theatre can still be seen. The markings are easy to spot: a series of parallel, slightly curving lines, much like the layers of an onion slice. From that, it is easy to estimate the size and placement of the theatre as well as the location of the screen tower.

The most obvious of these is the old Telephone Road Drive-in. As of 2020, the property is still vacant (see photo at top). While the screens and snack bar area are gone, the patterns from one of the two screens are still evident. I know this theatre well, having spent many evenings there during my teen years, either with friends or with dates (the ideal place to go to in high school when in search of privacy). As seen in the photo, the markings for the car rows are still evident.

What is fascinating about this is that the passage of time does not immediately eradicate this signature. Other, less distinct markings can be found in the areas around the King Center at 6400 M.L. King Blvd. (formerly S. Park Blvd.). It opened in 1952 and closed in 1981. Some guesswork is still involved. In this case, the address suggests a location across the street from the markings.

King Center-6400 MLK Blvd

King Center Drive-in

A similar footprint can be found near the address for Chocolate Bayou Drive-in at 10200 Cullen. It later changed its name to the Cullen Drive-in when the street name changed from the older designation of Chocolate Bayou Rd.

Chocolate Bayou DI - 10200 Cullen

Chocolate Bayou Drive-in

Similarly, there are formation around the Epsom Downs Drive-in at 9716 Jensen Dr.(originally 9700 Humble Road). It first opened around 1946-47. The theatre later changed names first to the Bronco, and then the Peliculas Mexicano Auto Cine.

Epsom Downs - 9700 Jensen

Epsom Downs Drive-in

But that’s it for Houston, folks. The remainder of those local former locations, as seen from satellite views, show nothing but an array of buildings and homes. And for those properties that still bear marks of their cinematic past, that will eventually change when the land is wiped clean for yet another office park or subdivision—and the onion marks will disappear for good.

 

Showboat DI - 22422 FM 2920 Hockley

As a counterpoint to the above archeological digs, shown above is an overhead view of the Showboat Drive-in, located at 22422 FM 2920 in Hockley. It’s still operational. If you want to spend an evening under that stars, watching a movie in your car as in the old days, it is well worth the drive. It’s not that far, less than an hour, depending on what part of Houston you live in. It’s like a trip to Galveston, but instead of the beach, you get outdoor movies, sound pumped in on the radio, and munchies from the snack bar.

And it’s still a great place to take a date. Woo-hoo!


Cinema Houston celebrates a vibrant century of movie theatres and moviegoing in Texas’s largest city. This weblog is a companion to the Book, Cinema Houston: From Nickelodeon to Megaplex (University of Texas Press, 2007), and website, www.CinemaHouston.net.

David Welling is a Houston-based writer, artist, and graphic designer. His lifelong interest in movies (and the places that show them) led to the writing of Cinema Houston, which included fifteen years of research, and its subsequent website.