The Aurora Drive-In Theater

THE AURORA DRIVE-IN

Although the first drive-in theater opened in 1933 in Camden, New Jersey, economic malaise and World War II retarded the drive-in’s development. It was not until the late 1940s that the number of drive-ins began to multiply nationwide as sales of automobiles skyrocketed and the novelty of the car suddenly provided a market for recreation oriented toward it. The Aurora Drive-In (originally called the “Aurora Motor-In”) formerly at N. 135 th and Aurora Avenue, was constructed at that time.

The drive-in was marketed as an outing for the entire family lasting an entire evening. Prompted by a skeptical movie industry still hooked on indoor theaters, drive-in owners were plagued with high rental fees on second-run features. Since the primary source of profits was concessions, owners encouraged families to arrive early in order to get a good parking space and to eat dinner before the first feature. Hamburgers, fries, hot dogs, as well as popcorn and candy were standard menu fare. Some drive-ins even offered bottle warming services for mothers with infants. It is very likely that the Aurora Drive-In was the first business establishment on this stretch of Aurora Avenue to serve pizza. Pizza parlors such as Shakey’s were a thing of the future, and frozen pizzas were nowhere to be found at Dondell’s Grocery just up the street.

The family orientation of the drive-in was not lost on the owner of the Aurora Drive-In, Dwight Spracher, when he came up with a marketing gimmick in which he got some teenage girls to “picket” the theater, waving signs reading:

DOWN WITH DRIVE-INS. MORE WORK FOR BABYSITTERS

and

WHILE YOU ENJOY DRIVE-IN MOVIES, BABYSITTERS STARVE.

This “story” made the front page of the Seattle Times. As the baby boomers grew up and parents stayed home to watch Ed Sullivan, drive-ins gradually transformed into havens for teenagers seeking privacy. Since patrons started paying more attention to themselves than to the movie, the films increasingly became forgettable fare.

Besides the beach party fad, cheaply produced monster flicks brought in lots of money.

When the movie industry abandoned self-censorship and established a rating system in the late 1960s, the Aurora Drive-In mirrored trends in the outdoor theater business, featuring films bearing titles such as Pompom Girls and The Cheerleaders whose subject matter requires little elaboration. The King County Council even considered legislation to try and prevent passers-by from viewing nude drive-in scenes in 1970. At the time, Jerry Foreman, spokesman for the Aurora Drive-In, stated: “If we didn’t play these films we would just have to close. For the general family films, we just don’t get the support we used to.” Drive-ins were disappearing as patronage dropped and real estate became too valuable. Although you could still get a hot dog, grills for burgers and fries gave way to high insurance costs.

On June 9, 1983, the Seattle Film Festival rented the Aurora Drive-In and indulged in its nostalgia for all-night back-to- back drive-in marathons. Charging $5 per carload, the evening featured a succession of kitsch, including Death Race 2000, The Little Shop of Horrors, and The Abominable Dr. Phibes. Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper starred in the evening’s final feature, The Trip, a highly successful 1967 flick whose title said it all and script penned by Jack Nicholson said nothing. After the Aurora Drive-In closed for the season, the reader board’s message stating:

CLOSED FOR WINTER, OPENING EARLY SPRING

suddenly became

COMING SOON: PRICE SAVERS WHOLESALE CLUB

in early 1984. The Aurora Drive-In was dead.