LOGAN, Utah (AP) — A vacant lot in south Logan has experienced the past century in a way that might be described as “roadside Americana.”
From a patch of farmland along the highway, it became the site of Logan’s first drive-in theater in 1947. And after hosting popcorn-munching families and “necking” teenagers for a decade or so, it was converted into a junkyard for Cache Valley’s rusting Buicks, Oldsmobiles and Ramblers, the Herald-Journal reported.
When the junkyard closed, the back of the still-standing screen frame was painted white and sported a Utah State University promotion. Now, the city has approved a site plan for a convenience store/gas station there.
Cache Valley motorists pass a prominent remnant of what was called the Logan Drive-In every time they cross 10th West on U.S. Highway 89-91. The big cement wall visible in the southwest corner of the intersection may look like an old movie screen but is actually a frame for a wooden screen that used to front it.
“I’ll hate to see it go, but I understand. You can’t hold onto everything,” said Friend Weller, a Hyrum resident who has researched the history of the Logan Drive-In along with its crosstown rival, the Cache Drive-In, once located where Sam’s Club now stands.
In the early ’90s, after scanning newspaper microfilm for theater clippings, Weller decided to poke around the property on U.S. 89-91 and found several artifacts of the old theater — all of which have sat largely undisturbed since then.
He identified a small building on the back of the lot as the theater’s bathrooms, and he speculates that a largely collapsed and overgrown cinderblock building about 50 yards from the screen housed the movie projector and snack bar.
A handful of old drive-in speaker poles can be found along the edge of the property. They’ve been pulled from the ground and have clumps of cement at their base, and the top of one pole still has electrical wiring. For those unfamiliar with drive-in theaters, cars entering the outdoor facilities would park in stalls next to one of these poles, each of which held a wired speaker that the driver of the vehicle could easily affix to a partially opened car window.
Weller said the poured-concrete frame of the Logan Drive-In, or what he called the “screen tower,” is reminiscent of the earliest drive-ins in the 1930s, and instead of speaker poles, some of those early-day outdoor theaters had a “big, honking speaker” on the top of the screen tower that broadcast sound throughout the property. This apparently wasn’t the case with the more modern Logan Drive-In. The Cache Drive-In, opened three years later on Memorial Day 1950, was even more up-to-date with a metal movie screen supported by metal scaffolding.
Newspaper ads from the early 1950s show that the two drive-ins engaged in a massive price war, with entry for a carload of people eventually dropping as low as a dime. Weller said the owners were able to admit crowds virtually for free because a lot of their profit came from food and snack sales.
Majorie Andersen of Wellsville remembers loading up the car with kids, blankets and pillows to take in movies at the Logan Drive-In. At the time, her family was farming the property now occupied by the American West Heritage Center, so the theater was just a short drive up the road.
She can still recall some of the movies the family watched but said the cartoons preceding the movies were almost a bigger attraction, especially for kids, who often fell asleep well before a double-feature ended.
The Western movie “The Outlaw” was the Logan Drive-In’s feature film on the weekend of June 18, 1948. An ad for the theater in The Herald Journal featured an alluring illustration of actress Jane Russell and touted the film as “Howard Hughes’ daring production … exactly as it was filmed!! Not a scene cut!!”
Andersen remembers the hoopla surrounding the movie and thinks she may have seen it at the Logan Drive-In. “We didn’t take the kids to that one,” she said with a chuckle.
According to the nostalgia website Cinema Treasures, the Logan Drive-In was opened by a man named Elmer Brown. The Herald Journal this week was unable to find any information on Brown, but it appears he sold the theater after only two years of operation, evidenced by a newspaper ad at the beginning of the 1949 summer season announcing the business was under new management.
Cinema Treasures notes the The Cache Drive-In was originally owned by Harris-Voeller Theatres, but Weller and other locals remember the owner as well-known valley businessman Harold Heninger, who died in 2006. Weller once came across a promotional flyer listing upcoming movies for both theaters, which makes him wonder if the Cache Drive-In, under one or the other owner, might have bought out Brown.
The Cache Drive-In, which lasted into the 1980s, was much larger than its south-end rival, boasting 508 stalls compared to the Logan’s roughly 300. It also had more sophisticated technology.
“From what I know the Cache had bigger, brighter lamp houses in their projection system so the picture would look better,” Weller said. “The Logan, being a cement screen tower like that was only designed for what was called flat film, not scope film … so when they came out with CinemaScope films after the Logan had closed, the Cache added wings to the side of their screen tower to be able to accommodate the wider format.”
Plans for a combined convenience store, gas station and restaurant on the old theater property were approved by the Logan Planning and Zoning Commission in September, but at that time property owner Blake Dursteler said the project was only conceptual and not necessarily a certainty. He could not be reached for comment this week.
Weller, a technology whiz who works at Utah Public Radio and runs his own low-watt radio station in Hyrum, said he researched local drive-ins in the 1990s because he had a notion to start his own theater. Weller is an aficionado of early-day lighting and sound technology, and his uncle was a projectionist for the Grand Vu Drive-In in Moab for 32 years. His uncle’s job sparked the young Weller’s interest in the projection processes involved as well as the cultural phenomenon of watching movies outdoors.
“My grand scheme was opening a drive-in and using vintage equipment,” Weller said. “I thought it would be really fun. My uncle died a long time ago or he probably would have said no, don’t do it. It’s very much like a mom-and-pop business. You live there, you don’t go to work, you are at work all the time.”
Although five drive-ins still operate in Utah, the number of outdoor theaters here and nationwide has dwindled steadily over the past four decades. Weller cites several reasons for this, including the advent of VCRs in the 1980s, the rising value of land along major roadways and the longtime struggle of drive-ins to screen first-run films.
But in the 1940s and ’50s when Logan’s two drive-in theaters were packing in customers, conditions were ripe for the product. As Weller puts it:
“The whole concept of the drive-in was you could come home from work and you didn’t have to get cleaned up to go out. … People were hot, they were tired, there was no television, and if you wanted to go to the movies in the cinema, you had to get all cleaned up, dressed up. With a drive-in theater you could just pull up in your car, come as you are.”