Amusement Park Drive In. Keeping the nostalgia alive: Amusement Park Drive-In 1 of the last of its kind. Daylight saving time and VCRs may have killed most of the drive-in movie theaters by the 1980s, but for Billings-area residents, the Amusement Park Drive-In continues to pack in the families.
The drive-ins in Billings hit their heyday in the 1960s and ’70s when folks got there early to play bingo, kids dressed in their jammies and rode the Ferris wheel, and carloads of teenagers stayed out all night watching dusk-till-dawn marathons.
The drive-in movie theater craze began in Camden, N.J., in 1933, and hundreds of drive-in theaters sprang up all over Montana in the 1940s and ’50s. Now, there may only be two left in Montana, the Silver Bow Drive-In in Butte and the Amusement Park in Laurel.
The first drive-in theater in Billings was the Motor Vu, which opened in 1948 on King Avenue.
Billings gynecologist Hal Forseth remembers earning $1 a shift for cleaning up the drive-in grounds the morning after films were shown at the Motor Vu. One day, he got lucky and earned $2 for cleaning up the trash.
“The night ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ came out we got one of those spring snows. When I got there at 8 in the morning, there was an inch of heavy, wet snow covering all of the trash. I was out there for almost 10 hours picking it up, and my parents came to help the last two or three hours. The owner, Chuck Smith, drove up in his white Cadillac and said, ‘Son, I’m gonna pay you double today — $2.’”
Drive-ins were so popular that year — 1967 — that Forseth remembers blockbusters like “Bonnie and Clyde,” which featured Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, often hitting the drive-ins before they were shown at indoor theaters.
One of the controversies surrounding the drive-ins cropped up in the early 1970s when X-rated films, like “Ginger,” were shown at the outdoor theaters. A Billings Gazette story from 1971 included a picture of teenagers looking over a fence to get a peek at Ginger, mostly naked and 38 feet tall. Neighbors called the Yellowstone County sheriff’s office to complain.
A neighbor stood on his porch, watching the X-rated film with his wife.
“There’s nothing to stop the kids from watching the movie — unless they’re blind,” he told The Gazette.
Two years later, in 1973, the Montana State Legislature argued passage of a bill, introduced by then Rep. Harrison Fagg, of Billings, to prevent X-rated films from being shown at drive-ins.
Eventually, the film industry began regulating itself and labeling films for sexual content and violence.
Billings drive-ins catered to all ages and the Amusement Park Drive-In continues to do so. Owner Riley Cooke said it’s been a tough summer for business with weather issues.
A colorful character who has been in the movie business for more than a decade, Cooke said he purchased two digital projectors in recent years for $75,000 each and is still trying to recover that cost.
“It was go digital or go dark,” Cooke said. “I figure I’m not a businessman, I’m a showman, like P.T. Barnum or Buffalo Bill, but didn’t they die destitute or drunk? It’s been a discouraging year, that’s for sure. But then I sit out there on a slow night and some family will drive up and they say, ‘I’ve never been here.’ And in the back seat are two little kids that are saying, ‘We get to go to the drive-in.’ I can’t put that in my wallet, but it’s what pays me.”
Cooke said the Amusement Park Drive-in, the drive-in in Butte, and the one in Powell, Wyo., are the only drive-ins still left in the area.
Amusement Park Drive-in To Open Friday
It’s another sign of spring. This weekend, the Amusement Park Drive-In in Laurel opens for the season.
Manager Jenny Cooke says they will show their first movie of the season Friday night, when it gets dark.
Cooke says new this year, instead of showing two movies back-to-back, they will show one movie per screen. She says many people leave after the first movie.
The drive-in has been open for 11 years. Cooke says many drive-ins don’t last more than five years. She says, “So for us to still be here is awesome and the people that keep coming back and keep supporting us and letting us know that they are that they want us here is what keeps us here.”
Gates open at 7:00pm. Again, the movies start at dark.
Tickets prices are $7.50 for adults, 60 and older and kids, five to 14 is $5.00. Kids four and under are free. The amusement park drive in is at 7335 Mossmain Lane, just outside of Laurel.
Amusement Park Drive-In in Laurel
Amusement Park Drive-In in Laurel can be described in just a few words: quirky, fun and inexpensive.
Drive-in visitors can skip the sticky movie theater seats and opt for cozying up for their favorite new films on air mattresses and lawn chairs, in pickup beds and even on top of vehicles to enjoy the show.
Riley and Vickie Cooke have owned and operated the drive-in theater for the past 10 years.
“We are trying to provide affordable family fun,” Vickie Cooke said. “And here you don’t need a babysitter. You can just bring your kids in their pajamas.”
Amusement Park Drive-In offers more than feature films. There’s a loaded snack bar featuring average and unusual movie snacks — from popcorn and candy to whole pizzas and fried pickles. Moviegoers can also hop on carnival rides like the Fun Slide and a roller coaster for kids.
Located just outside Laurel at 7335 Mossmain Lane, the drive-in theater’s two screens play four movies nightly from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Gates open at 8 p.m. and the movies begin just after dark. Ticket prices are $7.50 for adults, $5 for kids ages 5-14 and seniors 60 and older.
Laurel Movie Haus opens; drive-in returns for season
A new three-screen theater, Laurel Movie Haus, is now open seven days a week in the former Dollar Store in Laurel. After a soft opening last week, the Laurel Movie Haus is now going full-tilt, showing movies seven days a week.
Vickie and Riley Cooke partnered with local physician Dr. Robert Ulrich to open the theater. Laurel has been without a theater since the old Movie Haus burned down about a decade ago. The Cookes’ teenage daughters — Annie and Jenny — and five employees are running the theater.
“Dr. Ulrich comes over to help out, too,” Vickie said. “People were just real excited to have a theater in Laurel, again.”
Movies showing this weekend are “Hall Pass” (Rated R) and “Battle: Los Angeles” (PG-13). Admission is $7 for adults and $5 for kids ages 3-11 and senior citizens 65 and older.
The Cookes also operate the Amusement Park Drive-In east of Laurel, which is opening for the season tonght with “Rango” (PG-13) on Screen 1 and “Just Go With It” (R) on Screen 2. The drive-in will be open on Friday and Saturday nights only until mid-May. Admission is $7 for adults and $5 for kids 5 through 14 and seniors 60 and older.
Keeping the nostalgia alive: Amusement Park Drive-In 1 of the last of its kind
At one time, there were four drive-in theaters in Yellowstone County. The Motor Vu advertised that it was the “first open-air theater in Montana.” In 1950, it was joined by the Sage Drive-in on 24th Street West, which was a quiet, two-lane street surrounded by cornfields. The following year, Steve Trenka opened the City Vu, which became the Big Sky Drive-in on the corner of Main Street and Lake Elmo Drive. A fourth drive-in, The Glacier, opened in Laurel, and the Sage 4 had a short run on the West End.
Los Angeles filmmaker John Dahl, who grew up in Billings, graduating from Senior High in 1974, said he saw the film that changed his life at a Billings drive-in.
“I was probably 17. I think I saw ‘A Clockwork Orange’ at the Motor Vu Drive-In in Billings. I took a date to this movie — I had no idea what it was — it just looked kind of cool. I liked it so much that I went back the next night and watched it by myself,” Dahl told author Robert Elder for his book, “The Film That Changed My Life.”
Dahl said his earliest memory of the drive-in was watching “Dr. Zhivago” at the Sage in his pajamas from the back seat of his parents’ station wagon.
“I stayed awake for the entire movie because I’d never seen anything so epic and spectacular,” Dahl told The Gazette.
Judy Trenka remembers helping her family run the City Vu, beginning in fourth grade.
“It truly was a family affair,” she said. “We popped the corn, my cousin and dad ran the projector. It was the old reel-to-reel, and the film came in a can.”
Trenka, who graduated from Senior High in 1957, said she dreaded the job of lugging all the silver dollars around when it was dollar night at the theater.
Her late father loved Westerns, so they showed a lot of John Wayne movies. The Sage’s niche was more of the first-run films.
“I remember the salesman would come to the house and he and my dad would negotiate the price based on how long we were going to show the movie. One movie would cost $50.”
Trenka said she used to catch kids who were sneaking into the park in the trunk of the car and occasionally in the back seat.
“One night I was running the ticket office and this car pulled too far away to reach the money. They opened the door and these kids were hiding in the back seat and they fell out of the car. They were so embarrassed,” Trenka said.
More than once her dad called the parents of teenagers she caught stealing the speakers. Some of them used to laugh it off, but some parents held their kids responsible for the theft.
“One man had his kids come down and work it off,” Trenka said.
Some teenagers spent as much time making out in the back seat as they did watching the movies. Forseth remembers the last three rows at the Motor Vu as being the make-out zone.
“I got a lot of my sex education back there in the last three rows when I picked up all the paraphernalia left behind in the mornings,” Forseth said.
Shawn Bettise, who graduated from Senior High in 1974, remembers taking dates to the Motor Vu.
“As a sophomore I was dating an older woman (a junior) and we would go to the Motor Vu. On one of those occasions, my dad asked me how the movie and the date went. I told him it was fine. ‘What was the name of the movie, he asked.’ I told him I didn’t remember and he just laughed and said, ‘Watched it from the back seat, didn’t you?’
Terry Collett worked at the Sage in 1973, washing windows for motorists as they drove into the theater. Sometimes he got a whole 50 cents for a tip.
“We had a double screen with a train going through it and a six-position Ferris wheel. It wasn’t terribly expensive for families.”
Many drivers forgot to take the heavy metal speakers out of their car windows before driving off, and the force of the car moving forward would break the glass windows.
“Part of my job on Sunday morning was picking up all the glass,” Collett said.
Eventually, the drive-ins started broadcasting their films on FM radio, which is what the Amusement Park Drive-In does.
Drive-ins began struggling when daylight saving time became widely adopted in the late 1970s. Darkness came later, making it more difficult to show the drive-ins’ signature double features.
Trenka believes the Big Sky’s screen was also built facing the wrong way, which made it hard to start movies before 10 p.m. in July because the sunlight was in the viewers’ eyes.
When the Big Sky closed in 1980, only the Sage was left. It survived until 1983 on the land where Barnes and Nobel and the Golden Corral are located.