Remembering the San Manuel Drive-In

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Ella and Jiim Sherman

From the Miner Archives: Dangling precariously from a rope attached to the top of the San Manuel Drive In Theatre screen, Buddy Long, local painter, gave the boards a new coat of paint last week. An employee of the theatre, Frank Gallego, aids the operation from his rather unsafe seat atop the screen that rises nearly 100 feet. According to Gene Tally, theatre manager, the new paint is extremely durable and is expected to give uniform picture reflections over its entire area. Tally also said a few improvements are being planned for the projection booth equipment.

San Manuel Miner

The first drive-in theater opened in Pennsauken Township, New Jersey on June 6, 1933. It was the invention of Richard M. Hollingshead, Jr. It offered 400 car slots and a 40 ft. by 50 ft. screen. The first picture shown was “Wife Beware” starring Adolphe Menjou. The theater closed after three years but the concept caught on in other parts of the country.

It would not be until the 1950s and early 60s that the drive-in would reach its peak as a popular form of entertainment. By 1958 there were over 5,000 drive-in theaters in operation around the country; nearly one in four theaters was a drive-in. In rural areas it would become not only an inexpensive form of entertainment but a place to gather socially especially for teenagers that had access to a car. In Tucson there were 11 drive-in theaters at one time. Now there are none.

There were some advantages for the drive-in over the indoor theaters. A family with a baby could take care of them inside the privacy of their vehicle. If they had kids, they could bring their own food items saving money. Their kids wouldn’t bother anyone watching the movie and if they got tired, they fell asleep in the car. Many families brought their young kids to the drive-in dressed in pajamas with a blanket and pillow. In the summer and spring you could bring lawn chairs and sit outside. Many were known to bring ice chests with their favorite beverages.

The privacy allowed by watching a movie in your automobile also allowed for intimacy while on a date. The drive-in became a popular place to take a date especially in rural areas such as San Manuel and Mammoth. The term “passion pit” would become synonymous with the drive-in the 1950s and 60s. The reputation of the passion pit became so established that some parents would not allow their daughters to go on a date to the drive-in. Truth be told, there are probably some baby boomers alive today that may have been conceived in the back seat of what is now a vintage automobile such as a ’57 Chevy or ’64 GTO. A popular song in 1957, “Wake Up Little Susie” by the Everly Brothers told the story of two teenagers who had fallen asleep at the drive-in and missed the 10 p.m. curfew the young girl’s parents had set for her to be home. They were now worried about how they would tell the girl’s parents what happened and how the girl’s reputation would be ruined. The song was banned in Boston and other places because it was believed that the lyrics suggested that they may have had sex at the drive-in.

In 1954 the town of San Manuel was still in the mid stages of completion. Five hundred of the planned 1,000 homes were complete and workers and their families as well as businesses were moving in. Townspeople were looking for family entertainment and there wasn’t much to do in town. Tucson was over an hour away as most of the business district was in downtown Tucson and the road from the San Manuel Junction to town was a dirt road. A Booster Club was formed and an entertainment committee decided to rent a projector and motion pictures and show them on Friday nights. At first they showed them on a wall at what is now the lower shopping center. They then went indoors and used the town’s community center.

In the fall of 1955 construction of the San Manuel Drive-In was completed and the outdoor theater was finally opened. The drive-in included a snack bar with restrooms and an indoor seating area for 30 people. Gene Talley was the manager. The theater was owned by Louis Long. Louis was experienced working in and managing motion picture theaters. He had worked for the old Griffith Brothers Theaters in Texas and Oklahoma. The Griffith brothers were pioneers in the movie theater business starting around 1919. They at one time had control of over 800 theaters in seven different states. When Long broke away from Griffith, he traveled around showing movies in large tents. Soon he built a successful business owning 32 theaters in Arizona, two radio stations, one in Safford and another in Coolidge (KCKY), a newspaper in Safford, farms, ranches, multiple businesses and real estate around Arizona. Among the theaters owned by Long Theaters, Inc. based in Safford was an indoor theater in Ray, an indoor theater in Hayden, and an indoor and drive-in theater in Superior.

Jim Sherman replaced Gene Talley as manager of the drive-in in January of 1956. Gene left the drive-in to become a Pinal County Deputy Sheriff. Jim had begun working as an assistant manager for Long Theaters in Coolidge in 1951. He transferred to Superior in December 1953 where he worked with Charles Roberts managing the Superior Drive-In and Uptown Theater. When Jim moved into San Manuel, the newly built high school was

getting ready to be used for the first time on Jan. 23. The opening would be delayed due to a union issue and would finally open on Feb. 3. There was still no gymnasium or kitchen for the cafeteria. The San Manuel Copper Corporation smelter poured its first copper on Jan. 10. The Jan. 16 issue of Time magazine had an article about the construction of San Manuel and how Magma “proved the nation’s biggest copper deposit beneath the San Pedro Valley floor”.

Jim moved into a trailer with his wife Ella and 13-month-old daughter Karen Sue. The trailer was located on the drive-in property behind the snack bar. Jim says that when he took over management of the drive-in admission tickets were 60 cents for adults and 10 cents for children. The snack bar sold popcorn for 10 cents, soda was 10 cents or 20 cents for a large. You could buy a hot dog for a quarter, a small cheese pizza was 50 cents or you could buy the large pizza for 60 cents. Hot chocolate was a dime and a candy bar was a nickel unless you wanted a large four ounce candy bar for a quarter. Your favorite ice cream bars were a dime.

The San Manuel Drive-In was open seven nights a week. One of its early ads read, “Enjoy a Good Movie Under the Stars.” A double feature was always shown. There would be three different sets of movies shown during the week, on Sunday-Monday, Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday and Friday-Saturday. Many of the businesses in the Tri-Community and in Tucson paid for advertising at the drive-in. At intermission the business ads would be shown on the screen.

Saturday night became known as “License Plate Night” during a promotion. License Plate Night was a contest where patrons of the drive-in would write the number of their plate on a card entry form. At intermission the number would be drawn from a tub of entries and shown on the screen. The winner could then come to the snack bar and collect the cash prize of $50. The winner had to be present and if not the prize grew by $50 for the following week. Later other promotional ideas were used such as $1 a car load night, usually on a week day. Other promotions were a free admission Christmas show in

December to thank the drive-in’s patrons for their business during the year. A family picture would be shown.

The first movie Jim showed as manager was “To Hell and Back” starring Audie Murphy. Murphy played himself in the war picture based on his life and war experiences. Audie Murphy was the most decorated soldier in World War II receiving the Medal of Honor. He would go on to have a successful acting career until he was killed in a plane crash in 1971. Audie had been reported as visiting the area incognito in June 1956. He had just purchased a ranch in Tucson and had been looking at one in Oracle. He had visited with San Manuel businessman Lonnie McFadden at the shopping center. Murphy had traveled to Oracle and San Manuel with two friends of McFadden, John Goodman owner of the El Conquistador and Santa Rita hotels in Tucson and Jack Stilb also of Tucson.

On the Fourth of July in 1956, San Manuel would celebrate with a parade in town followed by a watermelon bust, kid’s games, pies and sodas. The theme was San Manuel Marches On. The parade was led by a color guard from Davis Monathan Air Force Base and included over 25 floats which were judged with the best receiving prizes. There would then be a giant fireworks display at the drive-in following the first movie during intermission. The San Manuel Miner reported that 3,400 pounds of iced watermelons were served during the day and that 460 cars had packed in to the drive-in for the fireworks display which lasted about 45 minutes. The event was sponsored by the San Manuel Lions Club which had just formed in March. They were the first service organization to form and elect officers in San Manuel. Sadly the San Manuel Lions Club folded this year (2013).

The movies shown that July fourth were “Summertime” with Katherine Hepburn and “Teen Age Crime Wave”. The 1956 fireworks at the drive-in was the first ever fireworks in San Manuel. Gene Talley had been the head of the fireworks committee for the event and had set off the fireworks. It would be an annual event for years. Jim Sherman said that Gene Talley continued to shoot off the fireworks for a number of years. He remembers that the Lions and Elks clubs and other organizations and businesses sponsored the fireworks for many years. At the same time a fireworks show was held at the Mammoth Drive-In also owned by Long Theaters Inc. The fireworks were sponsored by Mammoth businessmen.

The Mammoth Drive-In was managed by Don Garchow. It was also open seven days a week with a similar schedule for changing movies like San Manuel except for Thursdays when Spanish language movies would be shown. In 1956 the Mammoth Drive-In employed 10 people. L.E. Todd was assistant manager; cashiers were Mary Jane Burney and Mary Garcia; Ruben Mungaray was the projectionist; Hortencia Samaiego, snack bar manager; Delma Araiza and Willie Montijo worked concessions; Phoebe Kinsey worked the auditorium; and the maintenance man was Gilbert Corona.

Jim Sherman remembers some of the people he used to work with in San Manuel. He mentioned Gloria Enriquez, Dale White, Marie Drew, Peggy Wilson Sheffield and Jeannette McClintock. He said at one time he nearly had the whole Stewart family working for him, Johnny, Irwin, Stewart, and Barbara. Johnny Stewart who lives in Washington said he has many fond memories of San Manuel and the drive-in.

To show how times have changed, in 1956 the San Manuel Drive-in showed a movie titled “Wetbacks” billed as the “explosive story of border traffic in human lives”. It starred Lloyd Bridges. Not politically correct by today’s standards but shows that human trafficking was an issue back then.

Sneaking into the drive-in was common among teenagers. Hiding people in the trunk of your car was the most common way of sneaking in. Another method was having a friend drop you off on the side of the road, then walking through the desert and crawling under or climbing through the barbed wire fencing. Walking through the desert was a riskier way of sneaking in. You had to worry about the cactus and in the summer rattlesnakes. “I caught many of the kids sneaking in, it was a game we played,” said Jim Sherman. He told a story about pulling over Jack Huber coming in to the drive-in one hot, muggy summer evening.

The sun had not gone down completely and it was still hot outside. It was even hotter inside the trunk of Jack’s car. Jim knew that Jack had some of his friends in his car’s trunk. Jack probably thought he was busted but Jim started up a conversation and kept on talking for a half hour or so letting the kids sweat in the trunk and maybe thinking twice about sneaking in again. He figured that was punishment enough and told Jack to enjoy the movie.

If Jim caught you sneaking in, he gave you a choice, he could call the cops or worse, your parents, or you could “volunteer” to work a Saturday morning at the drive-in picking up trash and filling pot holes. Other problems Jim dealt with were people forgetting the speaker was hooked to their car and driving off tearing the speaker off the pole. Later people were stealing the speakers. They would go to a portable speaker that people would plug in to the power pole. You would be given one when you came in and drop it off as you left the drive-in. Then there was the wind that blew off parts of the screen that would have to be repaired. Mike Cline who worked at the drive-in said that one January he went to work and saw that the screen had been blow over during a winter storm. He went out to the marquee which had the evening’s scheduled movie on it and changed it to “Gone with the Wind”.

In 1958, Jim left the theater business and went to work for Magma Copper. In September 1960 there had been some break in burglaries at the drive-in. Long asked Jim if he would move his trailer back to the drive-in and manage it for him again. Jim worked it out where he could work at Magma and run the theater. He would manage the San Manuel Drive-in from December 1960 until March 1973. Jim worked at Magma for 38 years retiring in 1986. He started out as a mill laborer and then worked in metallurgy sample preparation. He went back to school and became a Junior Chemist and then Senior Chemist.

At the end of 1976, the San Manuel Drive-in closed down for good. The Mammoth Drive-in had closed a few years before. It was an end of an era for the people in the Tri-Community that were lucky enough to have shared the drive-in experience. The area where the big screen once stood has been reclaimed by the desert, like the smoke stacks of the smelter, now just a memory, but what a good time it was!

John Hernandez (182 Posts)

John Hernandez lives in Oracle. He is retired and enjoys writing and traveling. He is active in the Oracle Historical Society. He covers numerous public events, researches historical features and writes business/artist profiles.


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