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ERDA - Cars and trucks lined up to the west side of the Oquirrh Mountains on a recent Saturday night and old time rock 'n' roll blared from radios as they waited for dusk and the start of a double bill at the Motor Vu Theatre.
An American flag flew from a small shed where two young women collected money from families lined up to buy tickets to see "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian" and "Iron Man."
Kathy Larsen sat on a folding chair on this beautiful June night, as a dying sun cast its orange glow, and reminisced about growing up in a small Ohio town, where she watched drive-in movies on a regular basis.
"Until I was 16, I had never been inside a theater," she said. "My first movie inside a theater was 'Jaws' and it scared me to death."
Larsen loves visiting the venerable Motor Vu on the outskirts of Tooele, one of six surviving Utah drive-ins, a fragment of the 34 that operated in the 1950s.
The Motor Vu opened in 1949, and has been owned by the Bradshaw family since 1962. They replaced the screen in 1993 after the original was destroyed by a tornado.
The drive-in, which can accommodate 650 cars, has an ancient snack bar with worn tile on the floor, a hot dog cooker on the back counter, a grill for burgers and a snow cone machine. Fresh popcorn pours from a popper. The women's bathroom is still called a Powder Room.
Larsen said the Motor Vu reminds her of home. "It would be so sad if they disappear," she said.
He reportedly experimented by hanging a sheet in his New Jersey backyard and mounting a 1928 Kodak projector on the hood of his car. He put a radio behind the sheet for sound.
He obtained a patent for the first drive-in theater on May 16, 1933. The first one opened June 6 that same year in Camden, N.J.
By 1958, the number of drive-ins in the U.S. had grown to nearly 5,000.
As has happened elsewhere, Utah lost some of its most iconic screens. The Romantic Motor Vu, the Woodland, the Ute and the Park Vu, to name just a few former Salt Lake County drive-ins, are now stores, homes or medical complexes.
Larry Healey, manager of the Redwood Drive-In in West Valley City, which, with a capacity of 1,800 cars and six screens ranks among Utah's largest, said the Sero and now DeAnza chains kept increasing the size of the Redwood as the companies closed other older drive-ins. The bigger six-screen complex allows for smaller staffs even as volume grows.
"It's common to sell out five of the six screens on a Friday or Saturday night," said Healey, who grew up in Orem and watched his father operate the Geneva drive-in. "A few times we sell out the whole place."
Healey said Redwood patrons sit in the back of pickup trucks, haul sofas from their living rooms and chat with other people at the show. He jokes about seeing kids whose $1,000 cars have $5,000 stereo systems, which produces excellent sound through the FM radio.
The other end of Utah's drive-in spectrum is occupied by the tiny Basin Drive-In in Mt. Pleasant, which can hold about 200 cars.
Owner Matt Anderson said that while the movies' sound is broadcast on FM radio, the first four or five rows at his theater still offer the old-fashioned speakers that sit on poles.
"You have to be selective to find one that puts out enough sound to hear," he said.
The Basin might be known locally as much for its greasy cheeseburgers as for movies. Mt. Pleasant resident Mont Bona, who regularly takes his grandkids to the drive-in, said it's not unusual for locals to ask to buy cheeseburgers and forego the movie, which doesn't bother Anderson.
"We use a natural grill and don't flame broil the burgers so they retain a lot of grease," he said. "There is a sloppiness to them. And we do have a special secret sauce."
Some drive-in snack bars serve such basics as pizza, snow cones, nachos, hot dogs and buttered popcorn, usually at better prices than their indoor counterparts.
Alan Bradshaw, owner of the Motor Vu in Erda, stood in front of his theater's snack bar, taking time to answer questions about his family's history with the business in a still-rural area.
These days, he said that family movies with G, PG and PG-13 pack in audiences. R-rated movies, once a staple at drive-ins in the '70s, have fallen out of favor.
"Whenever there is a kids' movie, we come down," said Brian Russell of Tooele, who goes to the Erda theater. "It's nice and cool and there is fresh air."
Nobody seems to mind that movies often start at about 9:30 p.m. and a double-bill doesn't end until 2:30 a.m. Many young children wear their pajamas, like their grandparents did in the '50s.
Bradshaw said two of the biggest nights of the year at his Erda drive-in are the Sunday before Memorial Day and Labor Day, when he runs a dusk-to-dawn, four-flick marathon.
He said the lure for many customers is that they can be outside on a warm night sitting in an environment they have created.
"You can put your feet up on the seats if you want," he said. "It's your car."
Indeed, on that Saturday night in Erda, families set up beds in big pickups. Some grabbed drinks (alcohol is not allowed) out of coolers while others walked their dogs.
As the movie began, the place started quieting down, the snack bar emptied and the great American traditions of cars and movies blended together on a warm summer night.
Utah's closed drive-ins
At the height of their popularity in 1954, 34 drive-in movie theaters could be found in Utah. That number has dwindled to six. Here is a partial list of theaters that have closed or were torn down:
- North Star, Ogden
- Timp, Orem
- Pioneer Twin, Provo
- Valley Vu, West Valley City
- Mesa, Blanding
- Hyland, Cedar City
- Desert, Delta
- Starlite, East Carbon
- Davis, Layton
- Cache, Logan
- Ute, Midvale
- Grand Vue, Moab
- Montezuma Creek, Montezuma Creek
- Nu Vu, Montcello
- Fox Olympus, Murray
- Utah, Ogden
- Timpanogos, Orem
- Price Motor Vue, Price
- Hyland, Salt Lake City
- Park Vu, Salt Lake City
- Woodland, Salt Lake City
- Oak Hills, Salt Lake City
- Romantic Motor View, Salt Lake City
- Art City, Springville
- Starlite, St. George