Bygone era on Sykes Mountain Ave.


Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 11-07-2019 2:42 PM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — Drive-in theaters were a major feature of American life in the second-half of the 20th century, and some remain in operation, including in Fairlee and Bethel.

Their hold was so strong that nostalgia is helping to drive the effort to protect the old White River Drive-In Family Theatre sign that sits on a small lot that will soon become a roundabout at the intersection of Route 5 and Sykes Mountain Avenue.

When the drive-in first opened in June 1952, it was a destination unto itself. Parents could bring the whole family and not worry about getting a babysitter; smokers could puff away in their cars; and couples on dates could get to know each other, and maybe watch some of the movie.

The country’s first drive-in theater was established in Camden, N.J., in 1933, and by 1958, the country had a peak of 4,063, according to Smithsonian magazine.

The White River Drive-In made news in 1962 when high winds ripped the theater’s screen from its frame at the same time its sign was advertising Warren Beatty in the movie All Fall Down.

But after a 34-year run, the drive-in closed in the spring of 1987 when the owners said new technology at the time was keeping their customers at home, and the land might be more valuable for commercial development.

“The reason we’re not reopening is video-cassette recorders,” co-owner Peter Flanagan told the Valley News at the time. “They were our death knell.”

Around the same time, the Midway Drive-In in Ascutney also shut down and went on the market.

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That Route 5 lot is now a church.

Today, Sykes Mountain Avenue is home to several gleaming auto dealerships, a large postal facility, a big Mascoma Bank building, restaurants, and the bus station — not to mention a McDonald’s serving motorists near the interchange of Interstates 91 and 89.

The car is still king in that part of town, it’s just that nobody will sit in them and visit for awhile.