“Movies Under the Stars”

The Massena Observer, Thursday May 7, 1959, pg. 3.


Drive-in movie theaters are a staple during the summer yet there’s not a lot left in the country. Let’s look at the comparison numbers, in 2015, NATO (the National Association of Theater Owners) there are 595 drive-in movie theaters in the country, compared to 40,164 indoor movie theaters.i That’s a huge difference!

Luckily enough, there’s a drive-in really close to Potsdam, located on Route 56 headed towards Massena, New York, that’s still operational and opened seasonally.

What’s it’s name you ask?

Obviously, it’s called Route 56 Drive-In Auto Theater.

The concept of the outdoor movie theater goes all the way back tot he 1933, when the first auto theater was opened by Richard Hollingshead in Camden, N.J. A few other drive-ins opened up throughout the rest of the country in the 1930’s but it really didn’t catch on until the invention of the car radio, which occurred in the early 1940’s. The number of drive-in theaters in the country peaked in 1958, when the total number hit 4,063.

Since 1958, the numbers of drive-ins have declined across the country for mainly two reasons: many were “Mom and Pop” type businesses that few people who inherited them, actually continued to run and combine that with the rising prices of land that could be used for development in growing towns or cities, both equal a lot of drive-ins being closed and the land sold off.ii

The Route 56 Drive-in has managed to stay open since it first opened in the summer of 1955, which means (some quick math), Route 56 Drive-In is 61 years old! YAY!

The original owner of the drive-in was Peter Papyanakas of Potsdam; Papyanakas also operated the Rialto theater located in Potsdam. Supposedly, land fill that was used during the construction had been dug up during the St. Lawrence Seaway Project.iii

On a side note. I’ve only been able to find one source suggesting this so far and if it’s true, it connects the drive-in theater with the over arching theme of the St. Lawrence Seaway Project, which I’ll be exploring in the next few posts!

So Route-56 Drive-In wasn’t the only drive-in theater in Northern New York. Others existed in Canton, Potsdam, Ogdensburg, Gouverneaur, and Alexandria Bay. The following website: http://www.newyorkdriveins.com/, does a really great job documenting all of the outdoor theaters that at one time existed in New York state. Scroll down to the bottom of the page and you can search by region and even by which theaters are still open. According to the website, there are still 27 drive-in theaters in the state that are operational!

So back to my local drive-in! In the 1980’s the current owner, Jeffrey Szot, purchased the drive-in. During its 61 years of operation, the theater has had some renovations and changes to ensure it still is in line with current technology. In the 1990’s, the old fashioned speakers that attached to car windows stopped being used and sounds from the films began to be broadcast through the car’s radio. The old school speakers are still located in the field and are a good indicator of where to actually park your car. Then in 2014, a $100,000 upgrade helped switch the theater from reel-to-reel film to digital, which makes the picture brighter and the sounds clearer. While this summer, new bathroom facilities were built.iv

The Route 56 Drive-In is open weekly from May to September, seven days a week. Their website, http://www.jscinemas.com/56auto.html, is updated frequently to let you know which films will be showing that week. They do a great job showing the big summer block busters.

These were the films showing the weekend I went to drive-in with my brother and his girlfriend. Both movies were good I thought.

While, their concession is open throughout the night having typical movie theater foods: popcorn, slushies, poutine, fried dough (IT WAS AMAZING), etc. The concession stand gives off a 1950’s vibe. During the intermission a cartoon (1950-60’s style) is playing the entire time on the screen. The cartoon is about the concession stand and gives a count down to the next film. It’s pretty fun to watch.

So if you want to see two films for the price of one, under the stars, I highly suggest going to the Route 56 Drive-In or your local drive-in theater. If there’s an outdoor theater near you, comment below. Thanks for reading!

i “Number of U.S. Movie Screens,” http://www.natoonline.org/data/us-movie-screens/, (accessed 08/07/2016).

ii Robin T. Reid, “The History of the Drive-In Movie Theater,” Smithsonian, May 2008, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-history-of-the-drive-in-movie-theater-51331221/?no-ist, (accessed 08/07/2016).

iii Bob Beckstead, “Massena’s 56 Auto Drive-In Opens for 60th Year of Movies Under the Stars,” Watertown Daily Times, May 3, 1015, http://www.watertowndailytimes.com/adv/massenas-56-auto-drive-in-opens-for-60th-year-of-movies-under-the-stars-20150503, (accessed 08/07/2016).

ivAndy Garnder, “Massena’s Route 56 Auto Drive-In Going Digital This Summer; $100,000 Upgrade Planned,” North Country Now, May 26, 2014,http://northcountrynow.com/news/massenas-route-56-auto-drive-going-digital-summer-100000-upgrade-planned-0116094, (accessed 08/07/2016).