Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Resurrecting The Past: Drive-In Theater Speaker

Another entry in the Resurrecting The Past series...

With only one month to go until the 2011 Drive-In Super Monster-Rama, this seems like a good time to write about something drive-in-related. I have always loved going to the drive-in. Growing up in the 1970s I remember going to all the local drive-ins that were close to my hometown. Though the real heyday of drive-ins had already passed, there were still many of them left when I was a kid. It might not have seemed like a lot at the time, but compared to how many are left today it was a plethora. There were no less than no less than six drive-in theaters within a half hour drive of my town. In fact, my tiny hometown of Uxbridge, Massachusetts even had its very own Drive-In--The Quaker Drive-In Theatre.

In the 1980s there were a few less drive-ins than there had been in the 70s, but still plenty of choices to keep us busy. By this time my friends started to drive and my drive-in experience switched from being a kid who was taken to the drive-in with my parents or sisters (and occasionally stuffed in the trunk to avoid the admission charge!), to being a teenager going to the drive-in with my friends and hanging out. It wasn't until about ten years ago that my friends and I started going in different directions (getting married, having kids of our own, generally having more "grown-up" responsibilities...) and stopped going to the drive-ins regularly. At the same time, most of the drive-ins we used to go to were gone--either sold off, torn down and replaced with McMansions, or simply abandoned. Here is a little video I took this past spring of the old Sutton Motor-In on Rt. 146 in Sutton, Ma. This one has been closed for over a decade and is just sitting there, waiting either for a buyer who will most likely tear it down, or for someone to burn down what remains there...

Obviously I have a lot of nostalgia for the whole drive-in experience. Luckily there are still a few of them around, including the wonderful Mendon Twin Drive-In in Mendon, MA. This one was called the Milford Drive-In when I was a kid. It has managed to not only survive, but to thrive. The snack bar features all kinds of neat memorabilia and the menu is filled with great food--above and beyond the expected drive-in fare. Back in the 1990s they even expanded and added a second screen. It's a wonderful thing to experience in light of the fact that most drive-ins seem to be closed or getting ready to close. Here's a few shots from our last visit to the Mendon Twin three years ago (we really need to get back there):

The Mendon Twin's sign
Aah, the drive-in experience!
Car sticking out of the snack bar building
(the headlights even work on it too!)
My hometown Quaker Drive-In closed down many years ago. It became a self-storage area. This seemed like a shame, but at least they kept the look of the drive-in to some extent rather than plowing the whole place down. They kept the original sign and changed the name from the Quaker Drive-In to the Quaker Store-In. They even left the screen standing. I'm not sure if the place is still in business or not, but I kind of hope it is. It's certainly better than having the land turned into condos or a warehouse.

At some point back in the 1970s or early 80s one of the Quaker Drive-In's speakers (before they switched to a radio broadcast) ended up in my parents' attic. It must have been "liberated" by one of my older siblings. I found it as a teenager and still have it to this day. It's a treasured relic from a long-gone piece of my youth. I love drive-in speakers, and have frequently looked into buying some (at flea markets, on eBay...). This one is extra special though, because it actually says "Quaker Drive-In Theatre " on it! The only problem with it is that it doesn't have the back anymore (the part with the hook to put it on the pole). Maybe one of these days I can pick up another speaker of the same style from the same company (Projected Sound of Plainville, IND) for a cheap price and put the back of that one onto mine.

My Quaker Drive-In Speaker
The Quaker's name plate--
the factor that makes this speaker so valuable to me
A couple years ago we had a backyard drive-in party for my 40th birthday. I took the opportunity to hang the old Quaker Drive-In speaker from our clothes drying rack pole in the backyard for the evening. Check out The Oak Street Drive-In for more about that great night.

The Quaker speaker at our backyard drive-in party in 2009
As a kid I remember using wires to hook the little speaker inside up to a radio or my tape recorder. It wasn't a great system, but I was excited to hear that it still worked! Unfortunately, when I hung it up on the pole a couple years ago for that party I had to run a thick wire through the back and ended up puncturing the speaker's screen. I don't know if it would even still work now.

Backside of my Quaker Drive-In Speaker

Then, last summer I found another drive-in speaker at the Brimfield Flea Market. It was toward the end of the day and the dealers were packing up. The less they had to bring back with them the better. I believe the speaker had a reasonable price of around ten dollars on it. I asked them if they'd take a couple bucks less and they said yes. I was suddenly the proud owner of another drive-in speaker. This one (made by RCA) was complete. It not only had the back with the hook for hanging, it even had a few feet of the original cord that would have been attached to the pole (the part which would break if you happened to forget to hang the speaker back on the pole and drove off with it at the end of the night).

My "new" old drive-in speaker
As last years Drive-In Super Monster-Rama (which I was able to attend for the first time) was approaching I got the idea that maybe I could hook the old speaker up to a radio. I knew it had a speaker in it, and just didn't know if it needed some sort of pre-amp or something to make it work. I ended up attaching a new 1/8" plug (pretty much the standard size for all audio connections today) to the end of the speaker wire. I had tried using some plugs salvaged from cheap headphones and then decided to just go ahead and buy a couple new plugs at Radio Shack. I merely wound the wires to the connectors and covered the connection point with electrical tape. Maybe someday I'll do it a little more professionally and solder the connections, but that's a bit beyond me right now.

The re-wiring operation

A new plug for an old speaker
I plugged the speaker into my radio and... It worked! The little volume control on the speaker even worked. It also worked on my laptop computer and I'm sure would work with an iPod too. Here's a little video I made showing how it works. It's a fun combination of old-school and new-school technology:

I decided to bring the speaker along for the trip down to Pennsylvania for last September's Drive-In Super Monster-Rama. It seemed like it would be an uber-cool way to listen to some of the old drive-in horror movies being featured at the show. Unfortunately, my radio had a tough time picking up the broadcast channel for the Riverside Drive-In and the speaker didn't seem to want to work with my friend's radio for some reason. I did get to enjoy a couple minutes of that nostalgic experience of hearing a movie through a drive-in speaker before giving up on the experiment. Who knows, maybe I'll bring it back down for this year's Monster-Rama next month and give it another try...

Here's a horrible photo of me enjoying a glass bottle of Coke and my old
drive-in speaker at last year's Drive-In Super Monster-Rama!

The front and back sides of my modest drive-in speaker collection


  1. Very cool Glen. I often regret that I never "collected" a souvenir speaker from my local drive-in before it closed in 1989. I might have to do what you did and see if I can find one on e-bay or other.

    As for drive-ins closing, I'm happy to say that a new one has recently opened in my area (Canada). In fact it only opened Friday. I haven't gone yet but I definitely plan on making a few visits. I also saw a news story where 6 drive-in theaters are opening in the U.S. in the next year. One is in Michigan and the others are further south. They seem to be making a comeback! Let's hope it continues.

    1. Thank you for the good news MovieViewerMan! I also saw something recently about a drive-in comeback. I really hope that happens! I also hope that you'll get to that new DI in your area. Enjoy it!

  2. Thanks for posting! I was wondering if you could give me any hints for finding a speaker from Sinking Spring Drive in in Pennsylvania? My parents met there, and for their 50th anniversary I was trying to find one. Thank you for any advice!

    1. Thank you. Unfortunately, it seems to be pretty tough to find speakers from specific DIs. I've been looking for some from the ones I grew up visiting for a long time (including another one from the Quaker Drive-In). It's possible that someone in the town that the drive-in was located in might have one. You could check antique stores and places like that. Also, check eBay by searching for the specific drive-in. It's a long shot, but at least it's a shot. I have only found one that way and got outbid by someone else who seemed willing to pay ANY price for it!