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From 1950 to 1992, the Key Drive-In Theatre allowed Lebanon locals to enjoy the films of the day from their cars. LebTown looks back on the history of the theater and what it meant to locals while it was open.
Key Drive-In first opened June 9, 1950, a new location for Keystone Drive-In Theatres, Inc., which already had several drive-ins across the state. This was around the same time drive-in theaters were being popularized across the country.
At drive-in theaters, viewers could smoke, talk, or relax from their cars without disrupting others watching—at least, those in different cars.
When it was first opened, visitors to Key Drive-In could sit back and watch two films in succession for 50¢ per adult, or $1.00 on specific days. They hooked up the theater’s speakers to the side of their cars (with radio only being used for sound years later) and watched the night’s films on the big screen.
One of the more popular elements of Key Drive-in was its offering of refreshments: moviegoers could get out of their cars to fetch popcorn, candy, beverages, and more.
“The food always seemed better, the popcorn always seemed better, you had those funny little intermission movies to remind you to go get popcorn and hot dogs,” said Abby Chase, who frequented the drive-in as a teenager. “It was just different. You would approach the refreshment stand and you would smell the hot dogs.”
In a Nov. 9, 1990 article in the Daily News, then-manager at Key Charles McConnel reminisced that in the theater’s early days, 700 to 800 cars came out every week to see the films. Even more snuck in—or attempted to sneak in—to watch the shows without paying.
“When we were teenagers we would go, and we never had enough money between all of us to get in,” said Chase. “People would hide under blankets and backseats of cars, so they wouldn’t see the one or two people who couldn’t afford to come in.”
All-night movies were rare summer events at the theater, popular among the youth. Moviegoers brought food and alcohol and gathered with peers under the light of the projector.
“Just watching that sun come up behind the screen, it was beautiful,” Chase said of the morning following these all-nighters. “I just remember it was so orange coming up, because back then there were just fields back there. It was beautiful and you heard the train coming in, and it was just something to see.”
In 1975 a tradition began that would remain as long as the theater did: a Sunday flea market.
Key Drive-in also had its legacy preserved in the movies: Randal Kleiser, born and raised in Lebanon, directed feature film “Grease.” A drive-in scene in the film features a swing-set inspired by the swing-set at Key Drive-in, a place Kleiser likely frequented while in Lebanon.
“It’s a totally different experience,” Chase said of drive-in theaters compared to traditional theaters. “It’s just everything like you see in the movies.”
In the 1980s, demand for drive-in theaters across the country began to wane, as cost models favored indoor theaters. Key Drive-In was still in business, though, and added in-car radio sound to its showings.
“Well, the drive in was a fixture in Lebanon for a long time,” said Shannon Natale, who frequented the drive-in as a kid in the ’80s. “We always had a station wagon to go in so we sat on the tailgate and looked over the cars to watch the movie.”
In 1990, word began to spread that Key Drive-In might be sold to a new developer and demolished. This fate came to pass in 1992, when Key Drive-In’s property was bought as the site of a new Walmart.
“Even though its popularity lessened over time, it was really sad when it was torn out,” Natale reflected.
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