Good times at the Knight Drive-In

    Friday and Saturday nights from Memorial Day until the first sting of autumn in early October were a rite of passage for two generations of Riverton teenagers. Dragging Main, hanging out with friends at the A&W, Betty’s Pizza, or the Dash-In, and then hitting the West or Knight Drive-Ins as the sky turned pink filled warm summer nights for four decades.

    June 9, 1995, marked the end of the “Golden Era” of teenage life in Riverton. An icon for two generations came crashing down on South Federal Boulevard as volunteers dismantled the big screen that was once the Knight Drive-In Theater, a business that carried the names of its founders, Thom (Tom) and Winifred Knight.

    The Knight Drive-In 1949 – h/t Riverton Museum

    The Knight, along with the West Drive-In located on the site of Smith’s Grocery today, and the Diane Drive-In in Lander all suffered similar fates.

    A fourth drive-in movie theater, The Cactus Drive-In on the west side of Shoshoni ended in the early 1970s.

    The first drive-in opened in Pennsauken, New Jersey on June 6, 1933. The Camden Drive-In was the dream of Richard Hollingshead, a sales manager at Whiz Auto Products. In a “perfect storm” of innovation, movies with sound had recently replaced silent films, and Henry Ford’s Model-T, along with dozens of other manufacturers, was in the process of creating the American car culture.

    The first drive-in 1933, Pennsauken, New Jersey – h/t

    Hollingshead came up with the idea of watching movies from a car after his mother had trouble sitting in the seats at the local movie theaters.

    He experimented with screens tied to trees in his yard and a projector on the hood of his car. He put a radio behind the screen to test the sound and by May 1933, received a patent on his new motion picture viewing technology.

    Hollingshead spent $30,000 and started the Park-In Theaters, Inc. franchise. He charged 25 cents per car, and another 25 cents per person with a maximum of a dollar per car.

    His idea spread across the nation and the “Park-In Theater” as drive-ins were originally called eventually led to over 3,000 outdoor theaters nationwide.

    Since his idea came about in the United States, lawyers were immediately involved. His patent kept other owners out of a lucrative business.

    Repeated legal challenges eventually had his patent revoked in 1949. Nearly a thousand drive-ins opened within a year.

    The original Vali Drive-In, Powell, Wyoming – h/t

    Wyoming’s first drive-in, and ironically, its last, jumped the lawsuit by a year. Paul’s Drive-In opened in Powell in 1948. It was renamed the Vali Drive-In in March 1969, and again in 2004. It remains a popular tourist attraction in Park County as the American Dream Drive-In.

    Fremont County’s first drive-in began to take shape in 1949. Bob Otwell and Bill Chopping opened the West Drive-In later that summer at the present location of Smith’s Grocery.

    A.M. Goodrich opened the Diane Drive-In in Lander that same year.

    Good things often come in threes, and the third drive-in opened in August on South Federal in Riverton.

    Thom and Winfired Knight – h/t Riverton 75th Anniversary

    The Knight Drive-In, built by Riverton businessman Tom Knight is perhaps the most well-known of the four drive-in theaters that once graced Fremont County. The Cactus in Shoshoni came in 1955.

    Nine years later, the Acme Theater, owned by L.P. Smith opened in Riverton. “Smith’s Acme Theater” showed the short, silent reels of the day. They seem odd today, but the Acme was filled twice a week that first year.

    In 1915, Smith left for Thermopolis and another icon of 20th century Riverton, Mildred Belle Motte tried to purchase the theatre.

    She began planning to build a theater in 1911, but her husband discouraged her. When she attempted to purchase the Acme from Smith, he refused to sell it to her.

    “The movie business is no place for a woman,” Smith said.

    He then rented the theater to a man who failed miserably.

    Motte was undaunted. She opened her own theater in the King Building on North Federal and sold out almost every show.

    In 1916, she bought the original Acme.

    Construction of the Acme Theater 1919 – h/t Wyoming State Archives

    Motte had big plans for moviegoers in Riverton and constructed the present Acme on Main Street in 1919.

    The story of mid-20th century Riverton isn’t complete without the story of Tom Knight.

    Knight was born in Kansas in 1905. He came to Riverton as an electrician when he was 19 and went to work for Motte at the Acme in 1924. He maintained the building and was the projectionist, a position he held for 20 years until he purchased the theater on January 1, 1946.

    Knight was busy with many other ventures, including bringing electricity to rural Riverton. When he stopped at the farm of Ada, and Ena Sedlacek he handed Ena an electric meter and said, “Congratulations Ena, you have meter number one.”

    He then worked bringing electricity to the farms and ranches along the north side of the Wind River along Riverview Road.  

    Knight was a showman, entrepreneur, and philanthropist all rolled into one. He knew how to attract crowds, draw interest to films, and always took care of children. The Acme was the most successful theater in Fremont County and arguably the best in Wyoming in the late 1940s and early 50s.

    When Knight heard the news that Otwell and Chopping were going to build the West Drive-In, he took it as a personal challenge. He purchased land on South Federal near the Wind River Bridge and drew up plans for his own drive-in.

    Knight was the mayor of Riverton from 1948 to 1950, so when he got into an altercation with the farmer he was purchasing the land from, it made front-page news.

    Tom Knight (far left) and his projectionists – 1950s – h/t Riverton Museum

    Knight purchased the land in 1948, with the provision that the previous owner was able to harvest a corn crop before any construction took place. Knight was impatient as the summer ended, and the corn dried slowly. The farmer wouldn’t budge, holding Knight to the agreement until his corn was ready to harvest.

    After repeated attempts to get the corn combined, Knight lost his temper, and a fight began. Knight was later charged with assault. The crop was harvested and the earthwork for the new theater began in the spring of 1949.

    Grand opening August 25, 1949 – h/t Riverton Review

    The couple had a son, Thom Jr., who had an enlistment date with the Navy but was helping his father build the new drive-in that summer. On August 6, while Thom Jr. was working on the big screen a thunderstorm rolled through. A lightning bolt hit the structure, knocking young Thom to the ground.

    A June 11th story in the Riverton Review related the incident. “It was ‘too narrow an escape to be comfortable” for Tom Knight Jr. when during the brief thunderstorm last weekend, a bolt of lightning struck so close to him that he was thrown to the ground and momentarily stunned. Knight was assisting in some work at the Knight Drive-In theater when lightning struck. He apparently received no injuries, but for several hours complained of a sever ‘soreness’ in his chest.”

    On August 25, 1949, the Knight Drive-In opened for business. The first film was a Warner Brothers musical comedy called “One Sunday Afternoon.”

    One Sunday Afternoon the first show at the Knight Drive-In August 25, 1949 -h/t Warner Brothers

    The following year, Knight opened the Gem Theater on Third Street. It was half a block west of the Acme and half a block south.

    Drive-ins were all the rage in 1950s America. Families loved them, kids were thrilled to sit on the hood of mom and dad’s car on blankets to watch movies on warm summer nights, and teenagers steamed up the windows of the family car with their boyfriends and girlfriends, often not coming up for air to even watch the show.

    Outrage followed the explosive growth of drive-ins across the nation as overzealous citizen groups called them “Passion Pits” and the “Devil’s Paradise.” A few overwrought congressmen introduced legislation to ban them, but like rock music, which was getting the same treatment by those who can’t stand kids having a little fun, it all failed. Drive-ins nationwide exceed 3,000 theaters by the early 1960s.

    Tom Knight knew he had something special, and he treated the Knight Drive-In as such.

    In 1953 he added another 135 car spaces and in 1955 Knight expanded the screen to fit the latest movie craze.

    Brasel and Sims and Gilpatrick Construction widening the Knight for Cinemascope pictures – h/t Riverton Museum

    Cinemascope came out in 1953, and Vistavision soon followed in 1954. These were wide-format films, designed with a technology that was the forerunner of the modern Imax process. To fit the larger, wider film format, Knight had the two most famous Fremont County construction companies working on the screen simultaneously.

    Brasel and Sims of Lander and Gilpatrick Construction of Riverton both brought their cranes to the Knight Drive-In for the addition.

    Ever the showman, people noticed that Knight had brought in the county’s heavy hitters and the free publicity in the Wyoming State Journal and the Riverton Ranger had moviegoers chomping at the bit to see the new wide-screen films that Knight brought to town.

    What’s showing at the Knight Drive-In the week of June 8-15 1950 -h/t Riverton Review

    Knight added features unique to his drive-in, features that made it a welcoming place for families with young children.

    There was a playground in front of the big screen, but not just any playground. It featured a swing set, a miniature train, and a steam-powered carousel.

    The carousel was added in 1959 and was the talk of the town.

    It wasn’t just any standard carnival carousel but one made between 1896 and 1901 in Abilene, Kansas at the C.W. Parker factory.

    10-year-old Risty Peck with Tom Knight at the steam engine for the carousel – h/t Risty Peck

    The coal-fired boiler had to be primed with wood. Once the fire was hot, coal was scooped into the firebox to build up and maintain steam. The high-pitched train whistle on the boiler thrilled an entire generation of children.

    One of those children was also an employee. Ten-year-old Risty Peck, son of Ranger Co-Owner, and Co-Publisher Roy Peck dressed up like a railroad engineer to run the train and serviced the carousel boiler as well, shoveling coal, loading and unloading children, and operating the carousel.

    The boiler leaked steam as it reached operating pressure. Knight never pushed the heat too far for fear of a steam explosive. Despite clouds of steam hissing from several cracks, the engine worked, and no one was ever injured.

    Risty Peck shoveling coal into the steam engine firebox – h/t Risty Peck

    It was quite an experience for local youngsters to enjoy and a lasting memory for tourist families, or children traveling to Riverton to see their grandparents.

    The Knight featured double features with an early and late show. The late show was more attuned to adults while the earlier shows were almost always family-oriented shows for children.

    The concession stand was another point of pride for Knight. He offered all the standard drive-in movie fare, candy, popcorn, ice cream, hot dogs, and pop. His drive-in differed from others with free coffee for adults, and free hot chocolate for the kids. Hot drinks were welcome early in the season and just before the season ended in late September or October on cold Wyoming nights.

    The intermission feature used at 1960s Drive-Ins across America

    Knight’s wife, Winifred, baked cookies, pies, and other treats at home and sold them at the concession stand.

    Tom Knight suffered his third heart attack in the lobby of the Acme after the late show in March 1970 and died at the age of 65.

    Winifred didn’t want to continue the business alone and sold the Knight, the Gem, and the Acme to Commonwealth Theaters on January 18, 1971.

    The era of Tom and Winifred Knight had come to an end, but the Knight Drive-In and the two walk-in theaters remained.

    Commonwealth Theaters features July 1974 – h/t Riverton Ranger

    Commonwealth was a national theater chain, contracting with major Hollywood studios to get first-run movies delivered to over 400 theaters in 14 states in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain states.

    The company originated in Kansas City in 1936 and expanded rapidly.

    The change from Knight’s hometown emphasis to corporate ownership was evident quickly.

    Classic films at the Commonwealth Theaters in June 1975 -h/t Riverton Ranger

    The carousel ran just one season under Commonwealth’s ownership, shutting down in 1972, and dismantled three years later.

    The films changed as well. The family-oriented fare under Knight’s ownership was gone. In its place were Hollywood blockbusters, but also the hard R-rated films of the 70s that featured gratuitous nudity and bloody violence.

    The atmosphere of the drive-in changed as well.

    The sharp “rumble strips” at the exit, designed to allow a vehicle to leave, but with sharp knives that would destroy tires if someone tried to enter through the exit meant business.

    Fights, drinking, and brawling kept the Riverton Police Department busy at the Knight through the end of the 70s.

    The remains of the Knight Carousel 1976 – h/t Riverton Ranger

    It was common for teenagers to arrive late, pack a few friends in the trunk, have a couple of kids up front to pay admission, and then open the trunk once inside the theater.

    The sound system changed over the years as well. Knight’s original theater had three huge speakers up front that played the movie soundtrack.

    In one of his renovations in the 1950s, he wired individual, heavy metal boxed speakers to stands beside the 300 car parking areas. The boxes had a volume knob.

    Vandalism began to make individual speakers cost-prohibitive, but a new FM technology allowed limited-distance broadcasting of the film to the FM stereos in the cars and trucks inside the theater.

    the main body of the Knight Drive-In steam engine – h/t Riverton Ranger

    The carousel sat quietly in a shed, with many parts stored in the open.

    The Dickinson County Historical Society, a civic group from Abilene, Kansas, learned of the abandoned carousel and approached Winifred to see if she would sell it.

    The C.W. Parker Company was selected as the focus of Abilene’s 1976 Bicentennial project as the second most famous bit of local history after being the home of President Dwight Eisenhower.

    Minifred knew what she had. There were only three C.W. Parker carousels remaining in existence, and this one was in the best shape. In March, she set the price at $15,000, which was way over budget for the organization.

    The center drive wheel of the Knight Carousel 1976 – h/t Riverton Ranger

    The society began earnest fundraising with groups from the Girl Scouts to senior citizens raising money through bake sales, raffles, and donations, and with the help of $2000 from the National Carousel Roundtable were able to generate the money.

    They dismantled the carousel, shipped it 800 miles east to Abilene, and fully restored it. It is now a central point of their county museum and still gives children rides, sometimes using the same steam engine once operated by Risty Peck.

    The C.W. Parker carousel once operating at the Knight Drive-In now fully restored in Abilene, Kansas – h/t Dickinson County Historical Society

    The Knight, along with the Diane and West began to lose business with changes in movie delivery and the advent of the VCR.

    In 1988, Commonwealth decided to close the Knight Drive-In permanently.

    In a March 30, 1988 interview in the Riverton Ranger, Calvin McKinney, Commonwealth’s Riverton Manager outlined the reasons for the closure. “Poor attendance, at the drive-in, vandalism, bad behavior and the city’s annexation of the property were factors in Commonwealth’s decision not to open it this summer. Attendance has dropped 70 to 75 percent over the last four summers,” he said.

    The trend in the mid-1980s by motion picture companies was not to show first-run films at drive-ins until they had been seen at indoor theaters. By the time many of these films were available for outdoor showing, they were already on video cassette.

    “It hurts the drive-in especially,” McKinney said.

    In the final two years of operation, vandalism, including pulling out the speaker pedestals, cutting the wires on the car-mounted speakers, and even a brick thrown through the box office window indicated a change in the behavior of some viewers.

    “A lot of the kids out there are just horsing around,” McKinney said.

    The Knight Drive-In abandoned in 1988 – h/t Riverton Ranger

    Add the destruction of property to Riverton’s annexation of the property, which added $3,580 to $4,800 to operating costs for water and sewer hookups, and it was too much.

    There were no films ever shown at the Knight Drive-In again.

    The Knight wasn’t unique, the Commonwealth chain which once had 400 theaters, dropped to just 30 by 1988.

    The business has not been there. It’s not what it used to be. They’re disappearing rapidly,” Jack Poessiger, Director of Marketing for Commonwealth said. “It’s not just the company. It’s all over.”

    The big screen, projection booth, and box office remained empty for seven years, but in 1995. The 1838 Rendezvous Association purchased the land for its Wind River Heritage Center.

    The final days of the Knight Drive-In 1995 – h/t Riverton Ranger

    Crews of volunteers arrived in June and removed the buildings, took down the privacy fence, removed the pedestals, and leveled the area.

    The most impressive event came in pulling down the 37,000-pound screen.

    “What a windstorm,” volunteer Freeman Wempen said as his tractor pulled down the screen. The falling screen made a huge last gasp of wind as it hit face down on the gravel below it.

    An era ended in Riverton that morning. The West and Diane Drive-Ins closed soon after.

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