Friday, January 25, 2019

Before the memory fades: The Windham Drive-In Theater, 1949 – 1984

By Walter Lunt

Although it comes as a surprise to many Lake Region residents, Windham had its own drive-in theater. It operated for 36 years.

Maurice Rogers of M.L. Rogers Excavation (Windham Center) began earthwork on the multi-acre site in North Windham early in 1949, including mounding for the rows of car ramps. Opening night on July 26 featured one of the most prominent films of the late ‘40s: “Rachel and the Stranger”. The movie starred box-office heartthrob William Holden; Loretta Young, fresh off an Oscar for “The Farmer’s Daughter”; and Robert Mitchum, in a role that launched him into major movie stardom. One classic-movie web-site described the film as “…a simple story, wonderfully told with an even blend of action, humor, history and song.”

Early drive-in proprietor Jim Spiers attracted a brisk business with Walt Disney and other family-oriented film fare. Patrons of the day still remember how the double feature was presented each night. First, one or two cartoons (Popeye was a favorite) followed by the first movie. Between features, a darkened screen, bright lights and a three-minute countdown clock signaled it was time to visit the snack bar, and finally the second show. When it all came to an end shortly after midnight, traffic would swell on route 302 as “the drive-in let out.”

For over three decades the iconic big screen was located near the intersection of River Road and route 302, now occupied by the Lee-Car dealership and Mechanic Savings Bank. The lone reminder today is the street sign “Drive-in Lane,” located near the old driveway that led to the ticket booth.
Rarely would families of the 50s and 60s say “Let’s go see ‘such-and-such movie.’” Instead, it would be “Let’s go to the drive-in tonight.” It didn’t really matter what movie was being shown. For teenagers, the drive-in was the entertainment hot-spot during an era of innocence and fast times. Convoys of souped-up, refurbished vehicles would arrive, usually parking in groups in the back row (otherwise known as the “passion pit.” Since the admission price was per-person, a favorite prank was to hide people in the trunk until safely inside the theater grounds.

“It was a gathering place for kids on Friday and Saturday nights. Didn’t matter what was playing.” recalls Frank Lamb, who graduated from Windham High School in 1964. “We all had a certain place to park that was ‘our spot,’ usually up in the back.”

Lamb remembers one weekend in the early 1960s when he tried to sneak his buddies in without paying.

“There were two of us in the front seat and seven guys in the trunk. We were in a ’59 Chevy – that car had a huge trunk. We would have gotten away with it… except the rear bumper was (almost) draggin’ on the ground.”

Lamb said the ticket booth attendant claimed state law required him to check the car for alcohol and that they had to open the trunk. “Of course, there was no such law, but we didn’t know that. He could see the back of the car riding low.” The boys were made to pay the full ticket price. “But we had to scrounge for change to do it.” said Lamb, smiling and clearly enjoying the memory of the incident.

Ginnie (Morse) Jordan and Carol (Lewis) Taylor were in high school and employed at the Windham Drive-In Theater in the early 1960s. Jordan lived directly across the street from the theater and was often hired to clean up the grounds the day after a movie night. “(Patrons) would dump all their (snack remains and other) trash onto the ground before leaving.” She said she and her family could walk across the street with a blanket and enjoy a movie on the ground next to the car speakers.

Taylor says she still has the step stool used to prop her up in the front seat of the family car so she could see the movie when she was a youngster. Later, as a teen working at the theater, she recalls going from car-to-car with other employees collecting for the March of Dimes. “We all wanted to avoid the cars in the back row. If the glass was fogged up, we moved on.”

In interviews with long-time Lake Region residents who remember Windham Drive-In, few could name a picture they saw there, but all remembered the train. Being a family-oriented venue, most outdoor movie theaters had a playground; swing sets and merry-go-rounds were common, but the Windham Drive-In playground had something special; a kiddy train. Young children climbed aboard the small rail cars and rode into a wooded area adjacent to the theater. The silver mini-locomotive, operated by an adult, could be heard hauling successive groups of young, smiling faces right up to movie time at dusk.

Another memory of early outdoor theater goers was the movie speaker system. Speakers hanging off the inside of a car’s window prevented the window from “rolling” all the way up. The result was often a mosquito invasion. To discourage the pesky insects, Lamb said a theater worker would sometimes walk between the cars unleashing gray fog from a “smoker.” He said it was hard to tell which was worse, “…the smoke or the mosquitoes.”

It was also not unusual for cars to drive off at the end of the evening forgetting about the speaker on the window. It made a raw crunching sound and usually resulted in damage to the speaker, the window, or both.

The Tevanian brothers, current owners and operators of the Pride’s Corner and Bridgton Drive-Ins, leased the Windham facility in the early 1980s. Jeff Tevanian, who operates Pride’s Corner in Westbrook, says “(The drive-in) is a different environment. It’s about the experience, theater under the stars, not the movie. You can’t experience this on your phone or a tablet. Sometimes simpler is better. Drive-Ins used to thrive, now it’s nostalgic.” Tevanian says running a drive-in theater is not a money maker, but “You’re providing a joyful, entertaining space for friends and family – you get caught up in it (because) you have the venue for that.

John Tevanian related a not-so-joyful event after leasing the Windham theater in 1983. “It was opening night, we had advertised heavily, new owners and all that. A sizable crowd showed up, but we couldn’t get a picture on the screen. Stress. We had to refund everyone’s money and listen to their (not so kind) comments.”

The rest of that season, and the following, were successful, but 1984 proved to be the last.
Patrons speculated reasons for the closing of Windham Drive-In: rising property values, the advent of cable television, VCR’s or loss of customers. It was none of those, said Jeff Tevanian, “It was vandalism. The place was vacant most of the year; we suffered break-ins in the projection booth and the concession stand. Even after repairs, they’d be back. We couldn’t sustain the expense.”

Closing night, after 36 continuous viewing seasons, was Aug. 24, 1984. The last double feature wasStar Trek III” and, oddly enough, “Stayin’ Alive.”  <

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