Our Hometown: Memories of Whitehall's three drive-in theaters fuel nostalgia

STEVE McLOUGHLIN
Steve McLoughlin

This week's "Our Hometown" -- the final column in the series -- recalls an integral part of life in Whitehall from the 1940s to the 1980s that is near and dear to the hearts of those who experienced them: the city's three drive-in movie theaters.

Readers of a certain age will remember them as places where young families could go for an extended evening of inexpensive entertainment. For those on a budget, that could include bringing along a shopping bag of homemade popcorn, candy and cans of cheap soda.

Lawn chairs were frequently placed in front of vehicles so viewers could enjoy the summer evening's air as much as possible. Kids could fall asleep in their "jammies" during the second feature and, thanks to their parents, find themselves awakening the next morning in their own beds.

Many will recall them as the scenes of first dates, or of piling as many young friends as possible into cars -- including their trunks -- for a night out in which they could talk aloud and enjoy the films without disturbing other patrons.

And everyone looked forward to the 10-minute "countdown till show time" intermission feature, in which animated hot dogs, popcorn and soft drinks would dance in line to their signature theme, "Let's all go to the lobby to get ourselves a treat!"

Whitehall was perhaps distinct in that it has so many drive-in theaters in such a compact area. All three were on Main Street, also known as U.S. Route 40 or the National Road. Two of them -- the In-Town and Eastside Auto theaters -- were so close that both screens could be seen from either theater. Less than 2 miles to the east was the Miles East Main theater.

The Eastside theater opened in 1946 -- a year before Whitehall was incorporated as a village -- thanks to developer Frank Yassenoff. He previously had opened central Ohio's first drive-in theater on Riverside Drive in 1940, and from that experience, he was able to incorporate advanced features, such as underground wiring for speakers instead of overhead lines of wire strung to each one. (Later came in-car heaters for the cooler months of operation.)

Yassenoff's son, Skip, who owns and operates the South Drive-in Theater on South High Street in Columbus, recalls being involved in the Eastside's management and operation when he was a child.

"I would sit on my father's lap and collect admission fees in the booth, and for that, I was given a small Coke and a Hershey bar," he said. "When I was about 15, I would help to paint the front and the restrooms."

Lunch breaks were spent at the Robinwood Pharmacy's lunch counter across the street, he said.

Having become "up close and personal" with the projection system, Yassenoff recalls one troubleshooting incident in which no sound could be produced from the equipment.

"One Friday night, the regular projectionist was off," he said. "We opened with 'The Wild McCullochs' and were nearly full, but we couldn't get the sound systems to work. A relief projectionist was having a tough time, and as it got dark, we got another relief, and even he couldn't get it.

"We were totally befuddled and had to cancel and refund all of probably a thousand admission fees. Turns out that it was just a long slender rod that was used to control volume, and it somehow loosened itself from the dial that connected to it."

In the early 1970s, he recalled, "Clint Eastwood started making westerns with Sergio Leone. On one July Fourth weekend, we featured a marathon of Eastwood's movies, including 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,' 'Hang 'Em High,' 'For a Fistful of Dollars' and 'For a Few Dollars More.' We even gave away an Eastwood movie poster. But with an hour left in the last show, the sun rose and nothing on the screen was visible. All these cars were still there, and they could only hear the soundtrack."

In 1949, Yassenoff said, Ethel Miles entered the business and built the Miles East Main theater, 4750 E. Main St. According to his website, drive-inmovies.com, "It was a big, beautiful drive-in for its time and was well-maintained. The Miles drive-ins were the nicest drive-ins in Columbus during their era, catering to families and playing virtually all of the Walt Disney releases."

It operated until 1989, when the property, which had held 900 cars, was sold to make way for a Golden Corral restaurant and a Maronda Homes subdivision.

In 1955, another theater joined the competition when the In-Town drive-in opened less than a block west, where Walmart currently stands.

"The In-Town was a big drive-in, holding 1,000 cars, and was the best one so far," according to Yassenoff's website. "The marquee out front was much bigger than any other drive-in. The entrance drive was long with two ticket offices. The concession and restrooms were all impressive. There was even a miniature golf course in front."

The In-Town existed for only 10 years. In 1965, the property was sold and a Zayre discount store and small shopping center were built on the site.

Yassenoff said his father bought many of the In-Town's fixtures, including its sign and projection screen.

"The screen was made of plywood sheets, and no one knew how to take it down," he said. "Eventually, they burned away its anchor bolts and hooked the top of the screen to a tow truck. When it was pulled down, a huge amount of air was blown out from under it, and it kind of floated to the ground."

The 600-car Eastside theater closed in 1980; a storage facility and Aldi grocery store now occupy the property.

When asked why he thinks such nostalgia exists for the drive-in theaters of the past, Yassenoff reflected that "the audiences back then were families; it was a place to take a date and to hang out and was a coming-of-age place -- including for me to some degree -- as it was for a lot of other people."

Yassenoff's South Drive-in continues to operate, just as in the "old" days, at 3050 S. High St.

The goal of this column has been to give residents of Whitehall a glimpse into its past, and to encourage those who are interested in its history to consider joining the Whitehall Historical Society.

Visit the society's website, whitehallhistoricalsociety.weebly.com, to find out more.

Steve McLoughlin is past president of the Whitehall Historical Society.