From: The Baxter Bulletin - Sunday November 18, 2012
Nothing like a drive-in picture show
Written by From Baxter County Historical & Genealogical Society
Nov. 18 baxterbulletin.com
(This story is from Mary Ann Messick’s “Focus on History” and was edited by Martha White Lee.)
On their honeymoon in April 1950, Bob Brixey, a native Baxter Countian, brought his wife Doris to Baxter County. She fell in love with this area. Being raised in Oklahoma and Texas, she commented, “I had never seen clear water before. The rivers and creeks were so beautiful.”
They returned to Oklahoma City. While at a drive-in theater there, Doris remarked to Bob that she thought a drive-in would do well in a small town like Comanche, Texas, where her grandmother lived. “Or in Mountain Home, Arkansas,” Bob replied.
In 1951, the Brixeys purchased 10 acres on the outskirts of Gassville. They and their 14-month-old son moved into a small building on the property. Construction on the first and only drive-in theater in Baxter County began and became the Starlite Drive-In Theater.
Forty speakers were installed and ready by May 16, 1952, for the first showing, “Blue Grass of Kentucky.” They expected only a handful of cars would show up, yet every speaker was in use and several cars were without one. All 100 speakers were ready the next night and the same movie was shown to a sell-out crowd.
The admission charge was 41 cents for adults and 10 cents for children. Popcorn and drinks were 10 cents and hot dogs were 15 cents. On Tuesday night — buck night — an entire motor vehicle paid $1 to get in. One always knew when it was buck night. Before dark, flat-bed trucks came from the north loaded to the gills.
Though the drive-in was a mecca for teens, the average customers were young married couples with one or two children. It made the perfect place to relax. The children, dressed in their pajamas, watched the cartoons as they snacked on goodies from the snack bar, then fell asleep in the back seat. Mom and Dad had the opportunity to enjoy the movie and each other’s companionship.
Westerns were the favorites along with movies like “Lum and Abner,” “Ma and Pa Kettle” and anything starring Elvis. Soon, science fiction movies became frightening favorites. When “Bronco Billy” starring Clint Eastwood was showing, drivers wearing a cowboy hat got in free. The nights “Saturday Night Fever” with John Travolta was playing, the Brixeys and their employees dressed up like Travolta. The Jerry Hopper Band played before the movie “Honeysuckle Rose” and during intermission on the nights it showed.
“The Greatest Show on Earth” was the longest-running movie. It played for two weeks to sell-out crowds. The last movie shown was “Predator” starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Usually, top country music hits were played through the speakers until showtime. They came through sounding clear and pure.
Youngsters trying to sneak in created a small problem. Bob usually knew which cars to watch. When the driver parked, he wouldn’t get out because Bob would stand by the trunk. In a few minutes, Bob would knock on the trunk and say, “All clear.” The hider came out — to face him. Some tried to sneak in through the natural fence surrounding the drive-in. In the ’60s, a chain link fence was installed.
Customers didn’t always drive in to the Starlite. Some came by horseback and tied their steeds at the entrance. Over-the-road truck drivers parked along the highway and walked in.
The Brixeys loved their work. It showed in the ways they promoted the drive-in, which improved business and the customers’ pleasure.
The July 4th fireworks drew their biggest crowds. The fireworks consisted of a number of aerial and ground displays and ended with a giant red, white, and blue American flag.
At least a thousand, if not more, adults and children attended. Vehicles parked on the highway right-of-way for miles and in nearby pastures. Some didn’t have to attend — they had a lovely view of the aerial display from their homes.
The Starlite wasn’t always just a movie. During the summer, the Brixeys sponsored fiddlers’ contests on an outdoor stand in front of the concession stand. Well-known local artists such as Bobby Gene Carson (founder of The Monkey Run Boys), the late Marvin Stafford, and the late Billy Ray Lewis performed. There were sack races, chicken chases and, after Sputnik brought the space age into reality, flying saucer spins. Winners received a free pass to the Starlite.
A Kiddy Park with a small Ferris wheel, slides, swings and teeter totter were added. At one time, there was a baseball field alongside Highway 126 for use by area teams. Along came the Starlite Roller Rink, the only one for miles around.
The Brixeys, assisted by their two sons, celebrated the theater’s anniversary with cake and drinks for everybody. They advertised it by saying “It’s our birthday but it’s your party.”
In the late ’50s, they purchased a bus to haul customers to the movie and the roller rink. Eventually, more and more teenagers got their own wheels so the bus was no longer needed. They donated it to the Gassville Baptist Church.
From 1955-’60, the drive-in stayed open year round, then started opening in March and closed in November each year. In the ’80s, VCR became a household word and the “Twins,” — indoor theaters in Mountain Home — were in operation. Customers dwindled.
The last movie was shown on Aug. 30, 1987. Due to Bob’s ill health, it never reopened. He passed away March 12, 1989. Except for what the Brixey family wanted for keepsakes, the equipment and steel screen was auctioned off the same year. The building that housed the concession stand, indoor auditorium, the upstairs projection room and the living quarters upstairs was demolished.
For 26 years, the Starlite Drive-In Theater brightened up our night sky. Undoubtedly, those who went there frequently from 1952 to 1987 and former employees have fond memories of the drive-in. The Gassville Branch of First Security Bank, McDonalds and Genuine Care Pharmacy occupy the grounds today.
Photographs and information in this series was provided by the Baxter County Historical and Genealogical Society. If you have additional photos and information you would like to have properly preserved, please contact the BCHGS by phone at 425-2551, by email at email@example.com, or by mail to Baxter County Historical & Genealogical Society, P.O. Box 2125, Mountain Home, AR 72654. Additional information may be found at www.baxtercountyhistory.org. A Look Back can be found on-line at www.baxterbulletin.com.