FAMILY

Remembering

By Jan Brand | Photos by Stevo Torres

Sometimes we don’t recognize the value of what we have until it is lost. Then we want to bring it back, at least in our memory. Occasionally, we have the opportunity to actually live “the good old days” again—like hanging out at the Dairy Queen or packing all the teenagers that a car can hold and heading to the local drive-in theater.

Made popular with the baby boomers, the idea of a local drive-in seems to be an all, but lost past-time. After the Allied Forces won wars in Europe and the Pacific, the Greatest Generation came home to build a burgeoning middle class like the world had never seen. They married and had children. They bought homes, cars, refrigerators and lawnmowers. They settled in, and they revered both home-making and long days at the office followed by family togetherness.

Some call it the Fabulous 50s. Others consider it the Gold Standard Decade. Like those who went to war as boys and came home as men, America had come of age.

In January 1952, The Today Show on NBC became the first morning television magazine show. Elizabeth II was crowned Queen of England. Humphrey Bogart won an Oscar for his role in The African Queen. The New York Yankees beat the Brooklyn Dodgers in the World Series. The first nuclear test was made in the Nevada desert. General Dwight David Eisenhower was elected President of the United States. Also, the Brazos Drive-in Theater came to Granbury, Texas.     

With the country’s new prosperity, families looked for something to do outside the home. What could be more fun than taking the whole family to the movies—including pajama-clad kids in the back of the newly-popular station wagon, with pillows and blankets for those who couldn’t stay awake to the last scene.

Local entrepreneur, Fort Keith, saw the potential and built the Brazos Drive-In theater by hiring local men for construction. Much of the material came from Norman Lumber Company. Keith’s instincts were right, and the drive-in quickly became a popular part of Granbury’s weekend activities. People came from miles around to enjoy this new family experience.

*Excitement spread throughout the Dallas-Fort Worth area. An ad, run in the local newspaper by The First National Bank of Granbury said, “Congratulations to Mr. and Mrs. Fort Keith upon the opening of the Brazos Drive-In, for their faith in Hood County in making this large investment here and for giving citizens the best motion pictures the industry has to offer.” The Hardin Theatre Supply Company of Dallas wrote, “Congratulations to Granbury—When it comes to Drive-In Theatres, you’ve got the best. We know because we furnished all the very latest type sound and projection equipment for the Brazos.”

“As one of only thirteen Texas drive-ins that have survived the cultural art changes of six decades, the property remains much like it was.”

Occasionally, we have the opportunity to actually live the good old days…

Photograph by Stevo Torres

Over the next three decades, three owners kept the drive-in alive. By the 1970s, drive-ins were falling on hard times because of the mega-theaters with a dozen big screens showing the latest movies. Nevertheless, continuing support from the local community kept the Brazos Drive-In going.

The popular Beach Boys song, “I Wish They All Could Be California Girls,” couldn’t keep current owner, Jennifer Miller, from leaving California and moving to Texas. She wanted more than to live in Granbury. She wanted to preserve as much of history as she could.

In 1986, Ms. Miller acquired the Brazos Drive-In Theater. Consistent with her love for western culture and wanting to preserve the authenticity of the past, she says, “I believe my purpose in life was to save the Brazos Drive-In.” Our drive-in is one of only four Granbury businesses that have survived over the last fifty years.

As one of only thirteen Texas drive-ins that have stayed the course and survived the cultural art changes of six decades, the property remains much like it was. The small concession stand still has its original popcorn popper. The original checkerboard tile covers the floor. Rows of vintage metal lawn chairs line up in front of the old 1950s building for those who want to enjoy the gentle breezes of a summer night while watching the movie.       

Parents bring blankets and chairs, and the children run and play until the movie starts.

Photograph by Stevo Torres

Ms. Miller has done a remarkable job of marketing this local landmark. The drive-in has been used for weddings, family tailgate parties, birthday parties and more. With the Blu-ray advantage, people can put their pictures on the screen for special events. The drive-in has appeared in Southern Living magazine and was part of a national television documentary about drive-in theaters.

Each summer, Comanche Peak rents the theater for four events. When Relay for Life was held at the high school, the participants watched movies all night at the Brazos with their tents pitched in the center of the track field. It’s apparent, the contribution to the region has been a constant source of pleasure.

There’s nothing like sitting under the stars in your car and watching the moon rise over the big screen. A lot of marriage proposals took place by the light of that moon. Couples young and old are sometimes seen walking hand-in-hand before the movie starts. While walking their dog, they may be listening to the 50s and 60s music playing from the car radios tuned into the drive-in’s FM radio station, which replaced the old in-car sound boxes that used to hang on car windows.

Churches sometimes rent the theater and bring busloads of children for special movies. Parents bring blankets and chairs, and the children run and play until the movie starts.

From June through September, premier movies are shown at the same time as when they hit the local indoor theaters. One evening, as Ms. Miller drove down Pearl Street, eager to get to work, drive-in traffic was backed up almost to the town square. She crawled with the traffic for a long time, wondering what the problem was. To her surprise, when the drive-in came into view, she realized that the traffic jam was caused by cars waiting to get into the Brazos to see Pirates of the Caribbean. The police took two hours to clear the traffic of those who were unable to get inside for the movie, since the Brazos holds only 250 cars.

Like many American icons over the past few decades, the drive-in almost disappeared. But in the last few years, they have made a modest comeback. On CBS Sunday Morning, April 9, 2006, brothers Chris and John Rumfolo were interviewed about their newly opened drive-in at Hockley, Texas. When asked if building a drive-in theater wasn’t much like opening a typewriter store, the brothers reported that they had to turn cars away. They reminded the host that you can’t get a hamburger or a chili dog at a walk-in theater.

If Jennifer Miller has her way, the Brazos Drive-In will go on, and the people of Granbury will keep filling their cars with kids, happily revisiting the past. Under starry skies, they will keep making memories for a next generation.