In 1953, Chattanooga boasted at least six outdoor movie theaters as parents of baby boomers took children to drive-ins in their pajamas and teenagers on dates discovered the joys of watching movies under the stars.
The photo accompanying this article was taken at the Skyway Theater on Brainerd Road in October 1953 by Chattanooga News-Free Press photographer John Goforth.
Competition was so fierce for audience share at local drive-ins in the 1950s that several installed "Little Inferno" car heaters (like those pictured in this photo) to keep the outdoor businesses thriving in colder months. Otherwise, wintertime customers had to keep their vehicles idling with their car heaters running for hours.
In the photo, courtesy of ChattanoogaHistory.com, Don Shaw, then-manager of the Skyway Drive-in, shows off the location's "Little Inferno" heaters to Jean Greenwalt and Jimmy Greenwalt. If you're wondering, the car in the photo appears to be an early 1950s Buick Roadmaster.
Some drive-ins closed for the winter months while others offered "free gas" to customers when temps dipped below 40 degrees to compensate for all that engine idling. An article published along with the photo said the tiny heaters allowed "movie-goers to enjoy the movie in perfect and warm comfort."
A search of the newspaper archives in 1953 turned up references to six drive-in theaters in the area: the 41 Highway Theater on Ringgold Road, the Lookout Theater on Cummings Highway, the Red Bank Theater on Dayton Boulevard, the Skyway Theater on Brainerd Road, the Starlight Theater in Rossville and the 23rd Street Theater east of Rossville Boulevard.
The first real outdoor movie theater in the United States was opened in 1933 in Camden, New Jersey, by an auto parts store manager named Richard Hollingshead, according to various online sources. In the 1930s, a typical entry fee was 25 cents per car plus 25 cents per person. In-car speakers debuted in 1941.
The peak year for drive-in theaters was 1958, when there were more than 4,000 outdoor theaters operational in the United States, according to the Los Angeles Times. By the 2010s, there were only about 300 drive-ins still operational. Better televisions and the spread of video stores in the 1980s and 1990s helped fuel the downward trend.
The remaining drive-in theater closest to Chattanooga is the Wilderness Outdoor Movie Theater in Trenton, Georgia, (about 15 minutes from downtown Chattanooga), which is closed for the season but reopens in April.
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