By Mark Peihl, HCSCC Archivist
A teenager, his car hanging low in the back, pulls up to the gate and pays his admission. He finds a parking space and nervously steps around to the back, fumbles with keys in the dark and pops the trunk. Three more giggling youths pile out the back and dash to their places in the car and settle in for a double feature. This scenario played out hundreds of times in the FM area’s two drive-in movie theaters. Kids snuck into Fargo’s Star-Lite and Moorhead’s Moon-Lite drive-ins over more than three decades of operation.
The 1950s and early 1960s were the golden age for drive-ins, but their beginning dates back to the 1930s. Motion pictures and autos had taken the country by storm in the 1920s, and 1932, New Jersey inventor Richard Hollingshead began exploring ways to combine the two. He nailed a sheet to trees in his yard, set up a movie projector in his driveway and moved his car around to figure a way for occupants of multiple vehicles to view the screen simultaneously. Hollingshead worked out an ingenious system of ramped and angled spaces so viewers could see over the tops of cars in front row. Radio speakers on either side of the screen provided sound and a funnel-shaped wind tunnel in front of the projector lens blew bugs out of the projection light path. He received a patent for the system in May 1933 and the first drive-in theater opened in Camden, NJ the next month. Except for the addition of window-hung speakers for each car, most drive-ins changed little from Hollingshead’s design.
Few theaters went up in the depression years of the 1930s or during building material shortages during World War II but after the war, entertainment hungry Americans flocked to the outdoor venues. Most were established on the outskirts of towns where darkness was plenty rare and land was dirt cheap. In 1946, there were about 300 drive-ins in the country. By 1958, however, a whopping 5,000 were in existence.
In 1949 on the corner of what’s now Fargo’s University Drive and 19th Avenue North Joe Floyd, owner of Welworth Theater Company, leased a wheat field from the Hector family. It became the site of one of five regional drive-ins built by Floyd between 1948 and 1952, all named “Star-Lite.” In a 1979 interview Floyd noted that, though the Fargo venue was the best of the five, the 665 car capacity theater was “built sort of backwards.” Because it was so close to Hector Airport, the six-story screen had to stand in the lot’s southeast corner, meaning it faced the setting sun forcing movies to always start approximately 20 minutes later than the other theaters.
This particular site was also notorious for mud holes. Though the lot was fully graveled, the Grand Opening had to be postponed when two inches of rain fell during the day and the first car in the lot sank up to its hubcaps. The show finally got underway June 8, with a twin bill of Pennies from Heaven starring crooner Bing Crosby and Down to Earth with the knock-out Rita Hayworth. Newspaper ads for the opening boasted “Movies under the stars! So practical you’ll wonder why they hadn’t thought of it before! You can smoke! No restrictions!” Adult admission was 50 cents, kids were free.
At the season’s end in late October Manager Robert Sheppard told the Fargo Forum “the outdoor theater has been well received. Audiences included persons who came from distances as far as 100 miles.” Free admission for kids proved brilliant. One area small town couple piled 15 kids in the back of a truck. Though seventeen people watched a double feature with cartoons and “selected shorts” for a buck, the concession stand did gang busters. Up front bleachers provided extra seats and playground equipment kept kids happy before the show. Sheppard said family comedies and Technicolor western proved the best draws, a pattern that would hold through the early 1960s.
The theater was not only kid friendly, but dog friendly as well. One local couple and their Boxer never missed a show’s opening. The pooch entertained ushers by standing attentively in the back seat watching the film. Another family reported their Collie missing. The staff knew where he was. He’d been lying in the front row quietly staring up at the screen for hours.
Sheppard reported one problem which constantly plagued drive-in managers around the country: disappearing speakers. “Apparently some patrons begin driving out of the grounds without putting the speakers back on the hooks, then become concerned that they might be forced to pay for the damage to the cord and drive out with them… We plan to educate them on that point. They will not be asked to pay for the damages. The speakers are expensive and we would like to keep them.”
The outdoor movies proved so successful that Joe Floyd built a second theater on the Moorhead side in 1953. The Moon-Lite was located on the northwest corner of what’s now 40th Ave S and US Highway 75, just a mile and a half from the edge of the city. This new Moon-Lite venue, though smaller than the Star-Lite, had a screen facing a more practical northeasterly direction allowing for features to follow the time table of other movie theaters. The Grand Opening, July 31, featured the Kirk Douglas lumberjack saga The Big Trees, fireworks, pony rides for the kids and “free to the first 100 ladies, a beautiful rose courtesy of Town and Country Flowers.” An added attraction was the White Spot Drive-in restaurant just north of the theater. Leland “Bud” Bredemuhl’s teenage employees served up hamburgers, hot dogs, malts and the first pizzas served in the Fargo-Moorhead area.
Though popular, the Moon-Lite got off to a rocky start. The Grand Opening went well, but technical difficulties closed the theater for much of August. Then after several months of operations, a wind storm tore down the big screen. The theater did not reopen for three years.
In 1956, Joe Floyd’s Welworth Theater Company announced a major rebuild of the Moon-Lite featuring a new, much wider screen capable of handling the new Cinemascope movies. Improvements cost a whopping $85,000. The new screen debuted in May.
Meanwhile in Fargo, the Star-Lite’s small screen could not accommodate the new format films. The venue closed for the 1958 and 1959 seasons.
Welworth Theater Company completed another rebuild in 1960. The Star-Lite’s new 50 by 90 foot screen, renovated concession area and projection booth cost $25,000. They set a June 2, 1960 Grand Reopening. There plans were smashed by yet another storm on May 31. With their new screen in a pile of rubbish, Manager Burnell Bengtssen announced a “crash construction program” to rebuild. A new steel frame screen was in place by July, 1960. They celebrated by holding the first of many “Dusk ‘til Dawn” features. Film fans started with Gordon Scott in Tarzan’s Great Adventure, followed by the Gregory Peck western The Big Country. Bleary eyed patrons sat through Hey Boy, Hey Girl with Louis Prima and finished the 7-hours of fun the 1958 Japanese film called The H Man.
The early drive-ins brought in assortment of movie goers. Lots of families with pajama-clad kids falling asleep in the back seat, noisy teens glad to be away from their folks and young lovers who paid little attention to the screen. In the late 1960s films became racier and more violent. Drunken patrons became more common. Families stayed away and crowds grew younger. By the 1970s Moorhead suburbs had grown out around the Moon-Lite. Neighbors complained about R-rated films. Police had to increase patrols as crowds became rowdier.
Cinema Entertainment Corporation (CEC) took acquired the drive-ins from Welworth Company in 1975. They installed a new sound system using low-power radio broadcast directly to patrons’ car radios. That did away with the missing speakers but problems continued.
The final curtain for the drive-ins was the increasing land values. The lots became too valuable for businesses which ran only a few months out of the year. In 1981, CEC lost its lease to the Star-Lite property. A Kmart and Buttrey-Osco grocery pharmacy went up on the site. Today it’s home to the Skills and Technology Training Center and a branch bank.
CEC announced they’d be building a new, duplex drive-in in the future with a paved lot and other improvements but it never came to pass. The Moon-Lite quietly shut down at the end of the 1987 season and never reopened. Today its home to a housing development called Moonlite Addition.