Miami Herald, The (FL) - June 9, 1983
Author: BILL BRAUCHER Herald Columnist

Times were hard in 1933 and people were apt to do anything to survive. When Richard Hollingshead Jr. took a projector outside one night and flashed a movie onto the side of a building, family and friends looked at him strangely.

But Hollingsworth enjoyed the last laugh. In June that year, he opened the world’s first drive-in theater, in Camden, N.J. The feature was Wife Beware, with Adolphe Menjou.

On their 50th anniversary this week, drive-in theaters almost qualify as history. Where theaters have not been sold or redeveloped, tattered old screens and cracked, weed-covered ramps mark the passing of an era.

Four years ago, Preston Henn, a 51-year-old rugged individualist from Hillsboro Beach, owned 11 theaters in Broward, Palm Beach and Polk counties. Most were drive-ins.

He has four left, just two in Broward -- the seven-screen Thunderbird, doubling as a flea market on 55 acres at 3121 W. Sunrise Blvd., and the four-screen Lake Shore, at 1000 N. State Road 7 in Margate. These are the county’s last outdoor picture shows.

But feeling sorry for Henn would be a waste of time and emotion. Thanks to the flourishing flea-market operations at all four of his drive-ins, his corporation still profits by millions annually.

Last year, Broward County, paving the way for airport expansion, condemned his Airport Hi-Way Drive In. On 29.86 acres east of U.S. 1, the Hi-Way was advertised as the only nine- screen attraction in the world. According to Ted F. Shrader, real estate assistant in the property division, the county paid $4,517,860 for the land and personal property involved.

Henn was forced to close last Aug. 25 and didn’t like it.

"We haven’t gone to court yet, but we will," he said Wednesday. "To take someone’s property in a one-sided deal isn’t right. That price doesn’t include the cost of building nine screens and another $1.5 million for paving, ramping and so forth."

Henn hardly needs the money, but he is a competitor. He leaves today for France, where he will drive his $100,000, 800- horsepower Porsche 935 in the Le Mans Gran Prix.

Nor does he need the drive-ins. But buoyed by a swap shop phenomenon that he admits he cannot understand, "We’re doing all right."

Drive-in prices remain comparative bargains -- $2.50 at the Thunderbird, $2 at the Lake Shore. Children under 12 are admitted free.

"Multiple screens saved us," Henn said. "They’ve also saved indoor theaters. You won’t find many single-screen theaters left, indoors or out. They’re things of the past.

"If we had continued with one-screens as the popularity of television and cable television grew, we’d have folded up and gone long ago.

"We’ve also got to have big movies , like E.T. and Return of the Jedi. I hear some theaters are charging children $4.50 for Jedi. That’s quite expensive.

’Used to be," the North Carolina native said, "we could get by with five horrors , five westerns and five car-race movies . Not any more. You need the big picture."

Henn bought the Thunderbird, then a one-screen theater, in 1963 and expanded over the years. The flea market has been going strong for almost 17 years, drawing about 25,000 buyers and sellers of hand-me-downs on weekends.

The character of the drive-in has not changed over a half- century, except that car radios tuned to certain frequencies pick up the sound. Henn still uses speakers, for the most part.

Concession business remains brisk considering dwindling attendance. Teenagers are still unable to tell their parents about movies they saw. Cheaters still hide in car trunks to escape admission fees.

"It happens all the time, but it’s no problem, really," Henn said. "It’s a small part of the business. For people that tight, it’s better to get one admission than none."

The days of drive-ins might be numbered, but Henn has cause to remember them fondly. They made him a pile.

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