Memphis' Summer drive-in is a cultural icon. It's also a safe place to escape the pandemic blues.

Ask Memphians to tell you stories about the Malco Summer Quartet Drive In and a flood of memories pour out.

June Curry remembers seeing her first horror movie, “It’s Alive,” there in the 1970s.

“I couldn’t have been more than 11 or 12 at the time. It scared me so badly that I was too nervous to leave our station wagon to go to the bathroom,” she said.

Summer Avenue's drive-in may be a long-standing cultural icon, but it isn’t a thing of the past.

It's one of the safest places to enjoy entertainment while maintaining social distance in the pandemic, and business has been booming after closing mid-March and reopening in May.

The theater has also been reimagining what it means to be a drive-in in recent years. In addition to its first-run double features, Memphians can enjoy classic cinema and screenings of concerts and comedy shows. The theater's even hosted a graduation ceremony. 

Malco's building new film partnerships for the drive-in including OUTFlix Film Festival and Black Lodge Video’s Time Warp Drive-In series.

Matt Martin is the creator and co-owner of Black Lodge. He and filmmaker Mike McCarthy host the Time Warp series, which is a once-monthly cult and classic cinema event.

“There is a hunger to see good old movies,” said Martin.

The convenience of watching a movie in the comfort of your own car has long been a major draw of drive-in theaters. David Tashie, president and COO of Malco Theaters, said the price is right too.

For $20, you can take a carload of people to see two movies. Try taking four people to two movies at any other Malco theater and it could cost you almost $90. Which isn't to say that Malco is price gouging; that's just the cost of movies these days. In Atlanta or Chicago, you'd spend around $115. 

Tashie said that, ultimately, it's the unique experience that has kept Memphians coming back to the Summer drive-in over generations.

“The audiences haven’t changed much. They still enjoy watching a movie in the open air, under the moonlight,” Tashie said.

The Birth of Icons
Drive-ins got their start in the 1940s and reached their heyday in the 1950s and 1960s. In their early days, they primarily showed B-movies or second runs of hit movies.
The Summer Quartet Drive In was originally the Summer Twin, located just west of its current location. This photo was taken just a few years before it was relocated in 1966. (Malco Theaters, Inc.)
The Lamar Drive-In was Memphis' first drive-in theater. It opened in April 1940 with a showing of “Destry Rides Again” starring Marlene Deitrich and James Stewart.

A promotion in the July 3, 1940 edition of the "Memphis Press-Scimitar" advertised one feature film plus reels of the latest news from the front lines of World War II. It also noted an increase in ticket prices due to a new theater tax to fund the war effort. Tickets were $0.10 for children and $0.30 for adults. 

The original Summer Avenue drive-in opened in 1948 and was located just west of White Station Road in what is now the Summer Commons shopping center.

The developer was the legendary Kemmon Wilson of Holiday Inn fame. In the early 1950’s, Wilson and his associates sold the drive-in to Malco. Then called the Summer Twin, it was the first double feature drive-in in the Mid-South.

“In those days the first movie was generally a family-oriented film, with the second movie being a more serious drama, assuming the kids had fallen asleep," said Bonnie McAdams, who began going to the Summer drive-in in the mid-1950s with her parents.

Malco moved the drive in to its current location in September 1966. When it reopened there, the Summer drive-in was hailed as the height of modernity. It featured four projectors that cost $15,000 each. The entire thing was paved, and there were gleaming radios that attached to each car. It also offered an air conditioned, self-service concession stand. 

It was the largest drive-in theater in Tennessee and still holds that title.

The Final Curtain?
Nationwide, drive-ins faced a sharp decline beginning in the 1970s.

In the mid-1970s, Hollywood began shifting to blockbuster movies with simultaneous releases of films in cities across the country. More attention was given to sound and picture quality, which made it difficult for drive-ins to remain relevant.

Another major blow came when movie production shifted to digital. Many drive-in theaters were unable to cover the cost of $70,000 or more to make the conversion. 

These trends, combined with rising land costs and land value if redeveloped, have reduced the number of drive-in theaters in America from an estimated 4,000 in the late 1950s to 321 in 2019. Those numbers are still steadily declining. There were 381 in 2009.

Tashie said Malco is committed to maintaining a drive-in theater in the Memphis area for the foreseeable future. 

“The property sits on approximately 30 acres. And while the land has been looked at for other uses, we like what it offers Memphis and love the idea of keeping a part of Americana alive,” said Tashie.

Martin said part of the enduring appeal of drive-ins is the flexibility they offer.

“The drive-in allows you to customize the night based on your own desires. You can hang out with friends, walk around, move from car to car, and bring your own food,” said Martin.

Parents can bring children of all ages, and couples can enjoy a date night without the need to get dressed up or spend a ton of money.

Cindy Milligan, a resident of Grahamwood Heights in The Heights, remembers going to the drive-in with her parents in the late 1960s and seeing groups of teenagers hanging out. Her dad warned her never to let him catch her at the drive-in drinking and laughing with boys.

“Fast forward to the late 1970s and I was doing exactly the same things as those teenagers a decade earlier," said Milligan.
The state-of-the-art, self-serve concession stand at the Summer Quartet Drive In opened in the 1960s. Today, it still offers treats customers can't find at other movie theaters and at lower prices. (Ziggy Mack)
New Life for an Old Friend
Malco’s commitment to investing in the latest technology and partnership alongside its emphasis on nostalgia may be key ingredients to the Summer drive-in’s continued success.

In September, the popular Time Warp series resumed after a seven-month hiatus aimed at slowing the spread of coronavirus. Time Warp takes the drive-in back to its B-movie roots that Martin says you can't get anywhere else. 

He said it may seem that streaming platforms like Netflix have an enormous selection, but the algorithms are unlikely to introduce viewers to new genres. Instead, they recommend movies similar to what's already been watched.

“Huge swaths of our cinema history are being ignored because no one knows what to ask for," said Martin. “Try searching for movies made before 1960 and you will find a very limited selection."

Malco has recently started screening its own classic films independent of the Black Lodge series, like a recent Jurassic Park and Jaws double feature. They're currently screening 1975's Rocky Horror Picture Show. 

But Malco is also balancing the old with the new. Tashie note the concert screenings and recent graduation ceremony.

“Maybe soon we’ll host weddings,” said Tashie. “You can gather because it’s outside, and we enforce the CDC protocols.”

Dee White said her favorite memory from the Summer drive-in was going to a live broadcast of a Jimmy Buffet concert about 5 years ago.

“It was shown at drive-ins across the country. Nobody sat in their cars, we were all singing and dancing along like Parrotheads,” said White.

As many Memphians feel increasingly isolated and disconnected in the pandemic, the drive-in offers one of the only options for people to still gather safely, get lost in another world, and forget about the woes of this world for awhile.

It's a return to a simpler time when pandemics were just a scary movie plot.

“We are all aching for connection, for some sort of socialization. Thankfully we still have the drive-ins,” said Martin.

Support for this article was provided in part by New Memphis. New Memphis’ mission is to forge a more prosperous and vital city by developing, activating, and retaining talent and working to inspire and develop engaged, civically responsible leaders. Their work highlights the challenges and opportunities facing Memphis and provides a platform for civic education and engagement.
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