Joy-Lan Drive-In Theatre

Driven To See The Big Screen (2003)

This article appeared in the Tampa Tribune on July 4, 2003.


DADE CITY - A slice of Americana is tucked along busy U.S. 301, just north of downtown.

Patrons — some in pajamas — still head there to hang clunky speakers on their car windows and watch the latest movies on a big outdoor screen.

The Joy-Lan Drive-In, one of 10 drive-in theaters left in the state, has survived 53 years, and manager Ray Patterson and his wife, Doris, hope to have a grand anniversary celebration next summer.

They’re seeking patrons with memorabilia, nostalgic memories and any information about Joy-Lan’s history. The couple also want to spread the word about the drive-in’s existence, hoping it will be preserved for future generations.

“I went when I was a child and now I take my grandchild,” 52-year-old Doris said. “I want him to be able to take his grandchildren. But people don't even know it’s open.”

Doris has what she calls Joy-Lan’s “birth certificate,” an occupational license dated Oct. 25, 1950.

According to The Dade City Banner, the drive-in opened March 9, 1950, with the showing of Challenge to Lassie, starring Edmund Gwenn, Donald Crisp and the legendary collie.

The Banner announced on Jan. 20, 1950, that construction was to begin on the theater. Carl Floyd of Haines City, manager of the Floyd Theatres chain, said the $55,000 drive-in would be completed in five weeks. It would have room for 250 vehicles.

“The new theatre will be an exact duplicate of two Tampa drive-ins, the Dale Mabry drive-in, and the new Funland [Fun-Lan] theatre,” The Banner reported.

Contractor Ed Jenner built both Tampa drive-ins and was hired for the Joy-Lan job. He had built about 20 other theaters throughout the country during the previous two years.

“The drive-in here will be modern in every respect with individual automatic speakers and the latest RCA equipment,” The Banner reported.

Floyd Theatres also owned the Pasco Theatre in Dade City which, like the Vivian Theatre in Lacoochee, was a “walk-in” movie house. Both theaters no longer exist.

“Drive-In Theatre Opened in Dade City Last Night,” proclaimed The Banner on March 10, 1950. The Joy-Lan had risen from a field in six weeks, “near record time.”

Charles R. Lambert, former assistant manager of the Pasco Theatre, managed the new drive-in, working with Betty Jo Green, Betty Jane Drawdy and Edward McNally.

Lassie Leads The Way

The Joy-Lan was open seven nights a week, with two shows nightly: at 7 and 9.

“Almost unique for theatregoers will be the feature of no previews or advertising trailers. The only interruption between the first and second shows each night will be a five-minute intermission,” The Banner said.

Along with Challenge to Lassie, the premier included Down Dakota Way, starring Dale Evans and Roy Rogers.

Good Sam, with Gary Cooper and Ann Sheridan, was on the marquee for March 12 and 13, 1950.

Children 12 and younger who accompanied their parents got in free, and Doris Shirah, now Patterson, was among them.

“I've been coming here ever since I was 5 or 6 years old,” she said.

As a mom, Doris brought her own daughter, Jeanne Carver, now 38. Doris now brings her 9-year-old grandson, Michael J. Carver.

Bring Your Own Snacks

Things have remained pretty much the same during those three generations. For example, Ray runs the projector that was used when the drive-in opened.

Even the concession stand is the same, Doris said, with prices still relatively low compared with those in today’s walk-in theaters. A large popcorn is $2.75 and a large drink is $2. But patrons may bring their own refreshments, too.

“We don't mind people bringing food with them. What we like is seeing people enjoying seeing the movie,” Ray said.

Admission is $2.50 per person, with children 9 and younger admitted free. Even with those prices, Doris said, “you'd be surprised” that people still try to sneak in.

Thursday night is carload night, when as many people as can pack into a vehicle are admitted for $2.50.

“Don't matter if you bring 20 people in, it’s still two dollars and a half,” Ray said.

Joy-Lan’s admission is the lowest of any American drive-in, according to the Web site www.driveinmovie.com. The Pattersons don’t know what patrons paid when Joy-Lan opened, but many other drive-ins charged about 40 cents per person in 1950.

From Boom To Near Bust

The country’s first drive-in theater opened in February 1938 in Miami, the second one in Jacksonville the following year.

Growth was slow at first, with 22 drive-ins operating in Florida in 1948. But within five years, that jumped to 158 and the boom was on.

The peak years for outdoor theaters in America were 1955-59. Then the numbers began to decline. But the closing of drive-ins in Florida was more gradual than in other states.

There were 133 drive-ins in Florida in 1972, but that dropped to 117 by 1977. In 1982 there were 93 drive-ins remaining and more than half of those closed within five years. Only 42 drive-ins were left in 1987, and by 1998 there were 19 in Florida.

Joy-Lan’s fate looked similarly doomed in the 1990s. The drive-in closed in early 1995 when its parent company, Mastec Inc., sold the Pasco Theatre to another company. A condition of the sale required the drive-in to shut down to avoid competition.

Floyd, the original owner of Joy-Lan, had built a company of more than 50 indoor theaters and drive-ins in Central Florida. In 1969 he named Harold Spears as president of Floyd Enterprises.

That company was sold in the late 1970s to Burnup & Sims Inc., which retained Spears as president of Floyd Enterprises. Mastec merged with Burnup & Sims during the early 1900s. Soon, Mastec sold all its indoor theaters to another theater company, Carmike, but continued to operate the drive-ins. Then the drive-ins gradually were closed and, in 1996, Spears was told to close the remaining drive-ins.

To save some for future generations, Spears formed Sun South Theatres and bought the Joy-Lan, along with the Silvermoon in Lakeland, Fun-Lan in Tampa and Lake Worth Drive-in, formerly the Trail Drive-in.

Joy-Lan’s New Life

Spears reopened Joy-Lan on Oct. 11, 1996, with the sci-fi thriller Independence Day showing on the original screen.

Like many former drive-ins, Joy-Lan took on operations of a flea market/swap shop while it was closed and has continued to operate the sales from 5:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.

It helps the drive-in survive, Ray said.

Joy-Lan is closed Monday and Tuesday nights, but he would like to open it every night. That would be possible, Ray said, if more people knew the drive-in existed.

Those who do come drive from as far as Sarasota, Orlando and Inverness. Some nights there are as many as 180 cars, he said.

Joy-Lan can accommodate about 400 vehicles, he said, because people can park where they want and tune in on 87.9 FM. But if they want to listen to the movie the old-fashioned way, they have to park in one of the first four rows where about 80 speakers are hung from car windows.

Movie times are 8:45 and 10:30 p.m. Fridays through Sundays. On Wednesdays and Thursdays the movie begins at 8:45 p.m. unless there’s a double feature.

Ray takes requests for new releases, changing the films on Fridays. Joy-Lan shows only new releases, he said.

“Our motto is, ‘If there’s not but one car here we still play the movie,’” Ray said. “I've only shut down one time.”

The weather was so bad, he said, that he had to shut off the projector. But he couldn’t do it fast enough to prevent the projector’s lightbulb from burning a nickel-sized hole through the film strip.

All three cars that weathered the storm got free passes.

The web site of the theater is here.

2010 Pictures

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