Summer Nights at the Diane Drive-In

    The third of four Drive-In Movie Theaters in Fremont County opened on September 20, 1949, in Lander. Merval and Anna May Goodrich erected an all-metal 35 x 48 foot, concave screen on the west side of town, and named it after their two-year-old daughter Susan Diane.

    Goodrich’s theater was preceded by the West Drive-In in Riverton earlier that summer, and the Knight Drive-In on the south side of Riverton just a month prior to his opening. The fourth theater, the West-Side in Shoshoni opened the following year.

    The Diane had space for 326 cars and the curved screen offered much better viewing than the standard flat screens that were popping up like mushrooms across the vast expanse of the United States.

    Announcement in the Wyoming State Journal – h/t Wyoming State Journal

    At their peak in 1965, there were over 4,000 Drive-Ins in the United States. That number began to drop precipitously in 1985, falling to only 321 by 2020.

    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.

    When Hollingshead lost his patent on drive-in theaters in 1948, the outdoor cinema tsunami hit across the nation, and especially hard in the Midwest, and Rocky Mountains. Drive-ins needed a lot of land, and the small towns of the Great Plains and foothills offered lower property prices than urban areas and the drive-in craze began.

    The hoopla surrounding the opening of the Diane bordered on mania.

    Goodrich owned the Grand Theater in downtown Lander as well, believed to be the oldest still operating theater in Wyoming.

    Opening night, Lander mayor Frank Shipton took the podium and thanked Goodrich for bringing the outdoor theater to the town.

    The first film shown at the Diane Drive-In – h/t RKO Pictures

    The first film shown at the Diane was “Station West” starring Dick Powell and Jane Greer with Agnes Moorhead and Burl Ives in supporting roles.

    Produced in 1948, Station West was a loosely historical piece on the South Pass Gold Rush that Goodrich selected to highlight the location of his theater with the Western history of the area.

    When the film was over, Goodrich spoke to the crowd, promising to bring only first-rate movies to the Diane Drive-In.

    The drive-in closed for the season three weeks later, but Goodrich, ever the showman reopened it on Easter Sunday 1950.

    A speaker from the Diane Drive-In – h/t Pioneer Museum

    April 6, 1950, featured the Diane Drive-In opening with a sunrise ecumenical Easter service led by Trinity Episcopal Church pastor Edwin Gooseen. He brought in the choir from Fremont County Vocational High School to sing Listen to the Lambs and Beautiful Savior.

    The music drifted across the southwest side of Lander that early morning, providing a soundtrack to accompany Goodrich’s advertisement in the Wyoming State Journal that the theater was opening that night.

    Rev. Ralph Stevens also of Trinity Episcopal read the scripture, accompanied by a trumpet soloist. Ivan Gee of the Latter Day Saints offered a prayer and Methodist Rev. Ralph Snyder provided the sermon. Goodrich had covered almost all of the religious bases, and the promotion filled the theater later that night for the opening show of the season, a romantic comedy featuring Doris Day. Day was one of the most popular actresses in Hollywood and starred with Jack Carson in a romantic comedy called “My Dream is Yours.”

    My Dream is Yours opened the 1950 season at the Diane Drive-In – h/t Warner Brothers

    Drive-ins were all the rage. Families loaded into station wagons popped grocery bags of popcorn and filled coolers with pop.

    Teenagers filled their coolers with illicit beer, and many angry fathers walked from car to car with a flashlight looking for their daughters when the movie ran late.

    It was Americana with an arc light projector.

    “We lived at 9th and Sweetwater,” longtime Lander resident Mike Dabich said. “Our house had a garage with a flat roof. We’d sneak into the drive-in when nobody was around and turn up all the speakers in the back row. We’d run an extension cord to a popcorn popper on top of the garage and watch the show. It was like a big screen TV.”

    Mike’s partners in crime most of the time were Drake Byers and John McDougall.

    Glasses used to watch 3D movies in the 1950s at the Diane Drive-In – h/t Pioneer Museum

    “When you run with a guy like John McDougall when you’re a kid, you can always find ways to almost get in trouble,” Dabich said.

    Films ran all summer, officially from Memorial Day to Labor Day, but if the spring weather was good, and the fall weather cooperated, the theater season could stretch from April to almost November.

    Goodrich was open to business promotions inside his drive-in and one night Dale Chambers brought his backhoe to show the crowd.

    “There were no backhoes in Lander, just a few drag lines, “Dabich said. “Everybody was drinking beer and Dale started showing off his backhoe and clobbered his pickup with the arm. He swatted it hard.”

    Ticket booth for the Diane Drive-In mid-1950s – h/t Goodrich Family

    There was a playground at the Diane in front of the screen that shut down during the movie.

    “It was a big deal to sneak into the theater,” Dabich said. “Kids liked to climb the ladder on a dare and sit on top of the screen.

    The screen was attached to a timber frame with split-ring, bridge-style connectors.

    The bridge timber construction of the Diane Drive-In – h/t Robyn Gabel Oakes

    Goodrich offered family night specials at just two dollars a car, and kids crammed as many people as they could into sedans and station wagons to take advantage.

    The projector ran on arc lights, a dangerous technology that produces brilliant light, but at a risk to anyone but a trained projectionist.

    “We picked up the used rods and did science experiments with them,” Dabich said. “It’s a wonder we didn’t go blind.”

    Any successful drive-in had to have a top-notch concession stand, and the Diane did, offering burgers, hot dogs, popcorn, fries, and a variety of drinks.

    “Going in without the drink cups they have now was a mess,” Dabich said. “Sticky with spilled pop on the floor.”

    Dabich knew the drive-in’s namesake, Suzy Goodrich.

    “Drive-Ins were cool, in many ways, you didn’t have air conditioning,” Dabich said. “We watch dusk-to-dawn shows, newsreels, and cartoons. When the film stuck, it melted, and everybody honked their horn.”

    How the marquee outside the Diane Drive-In looked in 1952 – h/t Pioneer Museum

    Theater Operators Inc., (TOI) operated the theater until 1986 when Darrel and Robynn Gabel purchased it. The Grand Theater was included in the deal.

    Darrell and Robynn met in Flagstaff, Arizona where Darrell worked for TOI. Robynn worked at night at the concession stand.

    “I had lived in Riverton and moved to Flagstaff after a divorce,” Robynn said.

    Darrell was from Billings originally and was six years older than Robynn.

    “He proposed five times, once a year,” Robynn said. “Until I said yes.”

    Things moved quickly after they were married.

    The concession stand at the Diane Drive-In 1953 – note the apparel of theater goers – h/t Goodrich Family

    “Darrell wanted to own his own theater. He had stock options from TOI. They used the Grand to pay Darrell’s options,” Robynn said. “We just got married. He rented a U-Haul and opened the Grand.”

    Darrell worked for two years at the Grand. TOI wanted out and approached him about purchasing both the Diane and the Grand. He approached Anna May Goodrich.

    “What if I buy it?” Darrell asked.

    “I’d love to sell it to you,” came Anna May’s reply.

    It wasn’t all sunshine and roses at first for the newly married couple.

    “I hated Drive-Ins,” Robynn said. “I’d come from a twin walk-in theater, and I didn’t want to leave Flagstaff.”

    The nameplate for the Diane Drive-In – h/t Pioneer Museum

    The challenges were great when the couple arrived in 1986.

    “The Grand needed some work,” Robynn said. “I went to the Diane and almost had a heart attack. They were still using carbon-arc lights.”

    Carbon-arc lights produce an intense arc, similar in intensity to an arc welder. They are difficult to adjust, prone to blowing apart, and dangerous on many levels. These were the same arc rods that Dabich and his friends had played with in the 1950s and early 60s.

    In 1990, Commonwealth Theaters pulled out of Riverton. The Knight Drive-In had closed in 1988, but the Gem and Acme were still operating. Darrell and Robynn purchased both of the Riverton walk-in theaters.

    Darrell Gabel – h/t Gabel Family

    “We were trying to balance things, we’d just bought the two Riverton theaters, and complaints from neighbors about the Drive-In were coming in all the time,” Robynn said. “The land was worth more than the business.”

    The Gabel’s owned the Diane from 1986 to 1991, opening it on Fridays and Saturdays only during the summer. Even with those limited showtimes, it was profitable.

    “It outgrossed the Grand,” Robynn said.

    The last day of the Diane Drive-In – Robyn Gabel Oakes

    They had double-features all season, with “Dusk to Dawn” marathons on Memorial and Labor Day weekends.

    Those same antics that Dabich and McDougall and their friends tried a generation before wore on the Gabels.

    “Kids climbed the ladder on the back of the screen and sat on top,” Robynn said. “Kids were drinking up there on the edge of the screen.”

    Enough was enough, and in 1991, they closed the Diane Drive-In.

    Two years later a panel blew out in a windstorm and the couple realized the danger the big screen posed for the neighborhood. They tore it down.

    “Chuck Carper bought the property and started a subdivision with it,” Dabich said. “Bill Bartholomew and Jack Lomberg cut the screen down with chainsaws. It made the biggest bang you ever heard.”

    The big screen falling to earth – Robyn Gabel Oakes

    Technological changes created immense challenges for independent movie theaters beginning in the mid-1980s. The video cassette recorder offered movies often earlier than they could be shown at the local theater.

    The National Association of Theater Owners was composed of many small, independent theaters. They couldn’t get first-run movies for up to six months at times, with limited prints going to larger markets.

    “We could only get second-run movies unless we paid an extra $2500,” Robynn said. “We only did that once, for Top Gun in 1986. It’s still the highest-grossing movie of all time for the Grand.

    Regal Cinemas and Cinemark Theaters were the two largest movie companies and received preferential treatment in pricing and availability from Hollywood producers.

    At a national convention, the Hollywood producers learned that two-thirds of the theaters in America were independently owned, and options improved for smaller owners.

    “They learned that the independents had many more screens than the big boys,” Robynn said.

    In 1988, Commonwealth Theaters, owners of the two walk-in theaters and the Knight Drive-In, closed the Knight. Two years later they wanted out of Riverton entirely.

    “They sold them to Darrell,” Robynn said.

    Darrell improved all three walk-in theaters with new projectors and enhanced sound.

    “The utility companies had trouble keeping up,” Robynn said.

    The big screen at the Diane Drive-In ready to be scrapped – Robyn Gabel Oakes

    A highlight for the Gabel’s came in the world premiere of “Bambi” translated into Arapaho at the Grand Theater.

    Robynn and Darrell continued to operate the Grand, Gem, and Acme until 2012.

    None of their children were interested in taking over the business, but a young man, Robynn considers a son, Adam Barry was.

    “Adam worked in the concession stand at the Drive-In for us,” Robynn said. “The hamburger we used was so greasy we had Adam grill the buns too, just so the burgers wouldn’t slip out.”

    Adam gradually took over all the aspects of the business aside from the arc-light projector at the Diane.

    “Darrell was the only one to handle the carbon arcs,” Robynn said.

    Adam worked at both the Grand and Diane as a high school student and continued in college.

    “One day, I asked him, what do you really want to do?” Robynn said.

    “I want to run a theater,” Adam answered.

    Adam lived in an apartment above the Acme for a while and began buying Gabel Theaters in 2012, with the name changing to Barry Cinema.

    Darrell passed away in 1995.

    “Adam was like a son to us, he leased the Grand for a year,” Robynn said. “If you can make it work, we’ll owner-finance it for you.”

    A new generation has taken control of three theaters. The Acme celebrates its 105th anniversary this year, and the Grand is considered to be the longest active theater in Wyoming.

    The days of kids in pajamas with mom popping a brown grocery bag full of popcorn were gone. So was the excitement of sneaking in or even getting caught while trying for two generations of teenagers.

    The Dawn to Dusk Elvis marathons, the Biker double-double headers, and the dancing images of hotdogs, popcorn, and generic cold drinks dancing on the screen became a memory as well.

    For over four decades, the Diane Drive-In served the people of Lander and the surrounding areas with quality summer evening entertainment. It’s like will never be seen again.

    Related Posts

    Have a news tip or an awesome photo to share?