The time? It was the summer of 2003.
The place? The public library in Palestine, Texas.
Our purpose there? Drive-in research.
The reactions of the natives? They ranged from disbelief to amusement to a desperate hope that secrectly we had plans to return Palestine to a state of grace by opening a new drive-in theater in their community.
I must admit that we did have a sacred text with us.
Had it been handed down to us through the generations? Had those first drive-in patrons written down their wisdom to share with the faithful that would follow them? Had the book been hidden until now by a conspiracy of indoor theater owners?
Ahh... No. Rick Stivers had bought the book on Ebay.
What kind of book? It was a movie theater directory published in 1956.
How did we get to Palestine? Our employer had work for us to do in Columbus, Mississippi. Rather than fly, I suggested to Rick that we drive to Columbus, searching for drive-in theaters along the way. Obviously, we'd use Rick's book to narrow our search to those communities that had a drive-in theater in 1956.
We stopped in several towns along the way with no success. Driving through Palestine, we passed the local library and decided to stop in hopes that the local newspaper would be available on microfilm.
Entering the library, we struck up a conversation with a staff member that was actually old enough to remember the local drive-in scene.
Rick's book listed three drive-in theaters in Palestine. These theaters being the Dogwood, the Moon Lite and the North Palestine. The staffer only remembered there being two drive-in theaters in Palestine. In fact, she was absolutely certain that there were only two theaters. As she told us, "If there had been three drive-ins in Palestine, I'd have been to all three of them". With emphasis she added, "I was very popular when I was a young girl". I could tell from the look on Rick's face that this not a topic that he wanted to research further!
Changing the subject, I requested her assistance in loading microfilm into the film reader. Rick wandered away to check out another potential source of information. During the 1950s, a business directory was published each year in Palestine. Rick looked through several volumes but was only able to find entries for two of the drive-in theaters - the Dogwood and the Moon Lite. This certainly suggested that the formerly popular library staffer was correct about the number of drive-ins in Palestine!
Was there ever a North Palestine Drive-In Theater? Yes!
Searching the microfilm, I discovered an advertisement for this theater in 1949. Unless someone had played a cruel prank on the citizens of Palestine, this advertisement was absolute proof the theater existed. Yet the staffer only remembered two drive-in theaters!
Mystified by my discovery, she went around the library asking older patrons if they remembered the "old times at the drive-ins". Some remembered. Some did not. Those that remembered agreed that Palestine never had more than two drive-in theaters.
Determined to solve the mystery before we were forced to continue on our trip, I began a hectic review of roll after roll of microfilm. Finally, I found the truth. The North Palestine Drive-In Theater had closed and then later been reopened as the Moon Lite Drive-In Theatre!
With the mystery resolved, Rick and I thanked the library staffer for her assistance and then disappeared back onto the roadways of American.
With my notes, I kept copies of six drive-in theater advertisements from the Herald Press. You can see those advertisements here.
You may be wondering what six newspaper advertisements and a business directory can tell us about the drive-in scene in a small town in East Texas. In this case, far more than you might expect!
A review of the documents yielded the following significant information:
-- There were three drive-in theaters in Palestine.
-- These theaters were the North Palestine Drive-In Theater, the Moon Lite Drive-In Theatre and the Dogwood Drive-In Theatre.
-- The North Palestine Drive-In Theater was open as early as 18 April 1949.
-- The Dogwood Drive-In Theatre had its grand opening on 18 April 1949.
-- At some point before 2 June 1950, the North Palestine Drive-In Theater closed.
-- The Moon Lite Drive-In Theatre had its grand opening on 2 June 1950. The grand opening advertisement clearly states that the Moon Lite Drive-In Theatre was formerly the North Palestine Drive-In Theater.
-- The grand opening advertisement for the Moon Lite Drive-In Theatre is unique in that it contains an actual drawing of the property. As a result, we know more about this long gone theater than we do about nearly any other closed drive-in. For example, we know the property had separate buildings for the projection booth and the concession stand. We know that the "ramp building" contained "weather protected" and "air conditioned" seating for those seeking a communal drive-in experience. And we also know that for those "popular people", individual car speakers were provided for complete privacy.
-- As late as the 4th of July in 1954, both the Dogwood and the Moon Lite were still open. The Dogwood offered a 110 minutes of "your favorite funny folks" to be enjoyed while eating a delicious barbecue sandwich. The Moon Lite countered that offer with a "gigantic fireworks display" followed by the latest Marlon Brando film.
-- By 20 Aug 1982, only the Dogwood was still advertising in the local paper. This strongly suggests that the Moon Lite was closed by this date.
-- By 20 Aug 1982, the Dogwood had added a second screen and was broadcasting the movie soundtracks using AM radio. The frequency for Screen 1 was 535 and the frequency for Screen 2 was 640.
-- By 20 Aug 1982, the Dogwood had become a United Artists theater. In 2003, we passed a United Artists indoor theater on Highway 79 as we continued our trip to Columbus. This strongly suggests that the indoor theater is located on the same property as the Dogwood.
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