The COVID-19 pandemic changed a lot of our lives outside of the house. Take-out food, home delivery, and drive-in service became normal, while anything done in groups basically stopped. Here, in Magnolia, Arkansas, restaurants closed to diners and even churches went to drive-in or parking lot services. We do not have a movie theater in town (the Cameo closed 2012), but theaters around the country have been very hard-hit. One kind of business that has had a resurgence is drive-in movie theaters, which have become popular again, as people can watch new movies outside of the house while being physically distant.
Magnolia used to have TWO drive-ins. Let’s look at them using some remote sensing tools!
First, let’s look at the Joy Drive-In and Rocket Drive-In, two theaters in the same place. The Joy operated from 1949-1951, then was demolished and rebuilt as the Rocket. The Rocket was around from 1955 until the 1970s. It lies on the south side of town, near where South Jackson street and Renfroe street come together. Our remote sensing tool of choice here is simply Google Earth. If you pull up that area and roll the imagery date back to 2006, you see… this:
Let’s highlight what we’re interested in, using Adobe Illustrator:
The blue highlighted area shows the old berms that people would park their cars on. They point towards the screen, which stood at the northwest end of the site. It looks like there were maybe 10 berms there, allowing people to point their cars up at the screen for ease of viewing. The Cinema Treasures page for the Rocket has some photographs of it in operation. Check it out!
The other theater is a little harder to pick out…
Known as the Sunset Drive-In, it did not last as long as the Rocket. Cinema Treasures says it opened in 1951, but was gone by the mid-1960s. It was on North Vine street, near Highway 82. This is what the area looks like today:
Don’t worry, it took some sleuthing to nail down the location, then roll back to get this image. Going from the Cinema Treasures location for it, I got on the U.S. Geological Survey website and downloaded LiDAR data for the area. LiDAR is laser-based data that allows for you to get a very high-resolution and very precise map of the ground surface. It even allows you to strip off some of the tree cover digitally. This site, however, presented some challenge, as the forest cover is SO THICK. So, with the data processed at 0.5m resolution (roughly 18″), we get this:
This isn’t terribly clear yet, but let’s talk about what you see. You can see the alignment of North Vine Street on the left-hand side of the image, plus some buildings and that clear-cut area. The stippling in a mix of green and yellow are the trunks of trees in that pine forest. It’s a little too thick to totally remove them without some time-consuming extra work, but it is enough to let us pick out the site. We just have to look for patterns (archeologists love patterns).
We can see from the patterning in the tree trunks that the berms are still there, still visible to the laser’s eye!
So, while Magnolia does memorialize the theaters that once stood up and around the Square, theaters like the Joy, Ritz, and Cameo, we should remember that there were these other two, as well. Modern technology lets us pick them out pretty readily!
Carl Drexler, station archeologist