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Big screen under the stars: Area's drive-in theaters were popular entertainment, now experiencing revival

Big screen under the stars: Area's drive-in theaters were popular entertainment, now experiencing revival

A drive-in movie theater at Falconwood Park is set to show movies again beginning this weekend after being closed since 2019.

Sky View, Capri, Golden Spike, Q-Twin, Council Bluffs, 76th and West Dodge, 84th and Center, Grand View.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Omahans had their pick of drive-in movie theaters. Cars with families and cars with teens — some watching the film and others, well, you know — side by side, wired speakers hanging inside a car door.

Two showings a night. On summer weekends, there could be as many as five movies, the horror pics lasting into the wee hours.

Summer fun: Drive-in theaters and outdoor movies

The teasers in newspaper ads were breathless. Especially on opening nights like these:

“You’ll see… The largest all-steel curved screen in the world. Paved entrance road. Four ticket selling lanes. Beautiful, air-conditioned cafeteria. A model of beauty and cleanliness.” — Sky View, 1954

“FREE opening souvenirs. Free! Rose to All the Ladies. Free! Candy to All the Children. Free! Kisses to all the men.” — 84th and Center, 1953.

Omaha and Council Bluffs had outdoor movie showings as early as 1917, when the park at Lake Manawa ran silent films as part of daily and nightly concerts. Krug Park in the Benson neighborhood advertised outdoor movies in 1930. For WAC (Women’s Army Corps) week in 1944, movies were shown nightly at the corner of 24th and M Streets.

Not until 1948 did the area get its first true drive-in theater. By then, the nation had about 220. The first patented drive-in opened in Camden, New Jersey, 15 years before.

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Photo announcing the new Drive-In Theater at 76th and Dodge Streets on May 24, 1948.

Omaha’s first venture was at 76th and Dodge Streets. Called simply Drive-In Theater at its opening, it had a screen 50- by 60-feet. It covered 20 acres, accommodated 550 cars on 13 ramp levels and includes a refreshment stand and individual speakers. Janet Blair started in the two-year-old “Tars and Spars” that had two showings on opening night, May 25, 1948. Adults paid 60 cents admission, “children and cars free.”

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Grand View opens, two miles south of Omaha on Highway 75. Taken Sept. 3, 1948.

Later that year, Grand View opened on the northeast corner of what are now Fort Crook Road and Harvell Drive in Bellevue. Owned by Everett Petsch from Pleasant Dale, Nebraska, the drive-in was built on the side of a hill with room for 1,000 cars. Petsch applied his skills of contour farming. Grand View began with sound from a central tower. He also laid out a baseball diamond and picnic grounds, then added dirt-track racing the following year in front of the screen. His entertainment complex ended in 1963 with the closure of the drive-in.

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The inside lot of the Council Bluffs Drive-in prior to a showing of "First Blood" in 1983. Courtesy the Council Bluffs Public Library Archives.

Council Bluffs Drive-In, opened in 1950, was just across the “free” South Omaha bridge near 11th Street, north of Lake Manawa. Free was enticing because the area’s only other Missouri River bridge at the time, the Ak-Sar-Ben in downtown Omaha, had motorists paying tolls.

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Raising the screen at the new Golden Spike Drive-in Theater one week before opening night at 114th and Dodge Streets on Aug. 8, 1952.

The Golden Spike was on the north side of West Dodge Road at 114th Street. Its screen of 62- by 56-feet was said to be the largest in the “Omaha territory.” Built by the Epstein Amusement Co., which operated the Berkley, Corby and Benson neighborhood theaters, the drive-in carried out the motif by projecting railroad scenes on the back of the screen tower that faced the highway. The concession stand was patterned after a country railroad station. Opening night’s double feature on Aug. 2, 1952, was Kathryn Grayson in “Showboat” and Raymond Walburn in “Father Makes Good.”

Roman Hruska, before he was a U.S. Senator, was an attorney and partner in the Center Drive-In that premiered in 1953. The theater, later renamed 84th and Center Drive-In, was on the northeast corner of 84th and Hascall Streets.

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World-Herald Movie ad, Airport Drive-In Theatre, 1957.

Also in 1953, across the state line in Carter Lake, Iowa, O.C. Johnson turned that town’s dump into the Airport Drive-In. Johnson leveled off the trash on 30 acres southeast of 11th and Locust Streets and covered it with 700 truckloads of dirt that had been dredged from the lake about 20 years earlier.

J. Robert Hoff, an executive with the Ballantyne projection company, bought it in 1954 and installed the third CinemaScope system in the nation. The drive-in later was sold to the Hruska group.

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Construction of the Sky View Drive-in theater 72nd Street and Hartman in July 1954.

Mickey Spillane’s “The Long Wait,” with Anthony Quinn, and “Return to Treasure Island” was the first double feature at Sky View, north of 72nd Street and Military Avenue, on Aug. 28, 1954. Promising “first-run smash hits every week,” the drive-in was equipped for wide-screen films on what its builders said was the largest curved screen (90 feet) in the nation.

Sky View had room for 1,122 cars and seating for 500 on the patio and the roof of the concession stand. Electric car heaters allowed for year-round business.

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The entrance to the Q-Twin Drive-In Theater before its season opening in 1987. 

Last on the scene was the Q-Twin, southeast of 120th and Q Streets, in August 1961. Hruska’s group, which included Herman Gould and Russell Brehm, configured the drive-in so the two screens could be viewed from both the east and west sides with 1,600 speaker stands combined. Grand opening giveaways included 1,000 ice-cream sundaes and “100s of cupcakes.”

As the city grew west and the land increased in value, the last picture shows for many of the drive-ins came in the 1970s and 1980s. The Airport, renamed Capri, closed in 1972 and is an industrial site south of Shoreline Golf Course. The 84th and Center followed two years later and its land is now a small-business area.

The 76th and West Dodge’s final night was July 17, 1983. An Albertson’s supermarket (now a Hobby Lobby) and strip mall replaced it.

The next year, the Golden Spike was pulled. In its place came Miracle Hills Plaza. SkyView’s curtain dropped in 1985. It became a golf practice range — Benson Golf Course was its neighbor — that has since closed.

Q-Twin was the last one in Omaha. It fell in 1987 to make way for the St. Andrew’s Pointe subdivision and the lengthening of the golf course at Oak Hills Country Club.

The final survivor, Council Bluffs, made it through 2006. Its land was sold to the Council Bluffs Industrial Foundation. A Google data center is on part of the land.

After a decade without a drive-in in the area, there’s been a small revival. South of Bellevue, Falconwood Park opened in 2016 and re-opened this year on selected nights after not showing movies during the pandemic. Between Valley and Fremont, Quasar Drive-In opened in May for showings on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.

The vehicles are SUVs and not station wagons and the sound comes in through microbroadcasting on car stereos rather than with those clunky speakers, but a new generation around town now gets to experience the big screen under the stars.

Omaha World-Herald: Afternoon Update

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Reporter - High school sports

Stu is The World-Herald's lead writer for high school sports and for golf. Follow him on Twitter @stuOWH. Email stu.pospisil@owh.com

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