After 73 years the Wilmington Drive-In rides into the sunset

Pat Haley - Contributing columnist

The first time I heard him, I stood near the bar in an Irish pub in Cleveland, listening to an elderly Irishman read from the large red book he held in his hands. “Real tears are not those that fall from the eyes and cover the face, but those that fall from the heart and cover the soul,” he read.

I felt a bit that way when I read Randy Riley’s recent story about the demise of the Wilmington Drive-In Theatre. As Randy said, there was something fascinating about the old drive-in theatres that blanketed our small towns in the 1950s and 1960s.

It reminded me of the many wonderful summer nights spent with my family at the movies. On many Friday evenings, and occasionally on Saturday, my dad loaded us all into the old Plymouth and headed from our home in Port William to the Drive-In sitting at the edge of Wilmington.

The turning signal was a loud but welcome sound as we pulled in behind a long line of other Drive-In fans to see Randolph Scott, Joel McCrea, and the Duke ride the range. Dad and mom shared the same cowboy heroes and passed that love of Western movies and the old West on to their kids.

Our cousin, Marge Dehan, manned the box office, and my dad always handed her a few dollars. Since the statute of limitations have longed passed, it’s safe to say on some nights Marge winked and waved us through as the sun went down and the silver screen came on, and we lost ourselves in the fantasy world of the old West for a few hours.

A historian wrote about the original Drive-In’s history with these words: “The Northside Drive-In Theatre opened June 8, 1948 with spaces for 600 hundred cars and open-air seating for another 200 patrons. Kroger Babb was among the original operators of the Drive-In that was home to the 42 feet by 31 feet screen. After just two seasons, Babb sold the site to Chakeres Theatres, who changed the name to the Wilmington Drive-In Theatre.”

Queen, the pony, providing free pony rides and Playland installed at the base of the screen, proved to be well-liked by kids and families alike. The theatre even had live western appearances. Once, WLWT hosted its “Midwestern Hayride” TV show there. The theatre also had dish night, fashion night, TV demonstration night, sunrise Easter services, all popular with the local audiences.

I vaguely remember as a little boy of six or seven years old, a live performance of one of the cowboy movie stars. It may have been Rex Allen or Tex Ritter, I’m uncertain, as the mist of time and imagination plays tricks. But on the way to the concession stand, holding my dad’s hand, we looked toward the fence in the back and saw an imposing horse decorated in leather finery grazing grass. There beside him, rubbing his neck, stood the cowboy hero we had come to see.

As we grew up, we came to know the one true constant in life was change, and that change wasn’t always happy trails and happy endings. Still now, to an old cowboy from Port William, it will be hard to ride by and see a new subdivision where they’ll park their cars and build their pools where the old towns, ranches, and horses used to stand.

“Did you read the article about the Drive-In?” Brenda asked the other morning.

“I sure did. I think we need to go say goodbye.”

We soon pulled into the familiar drive. As the winds howled around us, we passed the ticket booth and saw the rickety boards holding up the old screen, the weathered wood groaning to keep it in place. The speakers and Playland are gone, and the grass is too high to mow. The gravel crackles under the tires, and the concession stand still stands where hot dogs, Cokes, and as much popcorn as one could hold, once awaited our arrival.

But there were nights, royal nights, when John Wayne and Audie Murphy rode across the silver screen. And when the sun sets, and the shadows and a warm breeze come together at the right moment, I still see them in my mind.

My dad and I shared a favorite movie — John Ford’s “The Searchers”, which began with a cabin door opening into the desert. As the “Searchers” ended, John Wayne picked up Natalie Wood and said, “Let’s go home, Debbie.”

We will go home, too. But a part of us will be missing. A part that a row of townhouses can never replace.

Pat Haley is a Clinton County native and former county commissioner and sheriff.

His book, “Around the Fire: Stories from Here and There” — comprised of his nonfiction stories in the News Journal through the years — is available through the Clinton County History Center in Wilmington, or you can reach Pat directly at 937-205-7844 or via email at [email protected] to purchase a copy.

Pat Haley

Contributing columnist