Tower Drive-In

E. Bird Street at N. Florida Avenue,
Tampa, FL 33604

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Nick DiMaggio
Nick DiMaggio on April 3, 2012 at 2:54 pm

I think it’s pretty much the same feeling people have here as they do in Virginia regarding trailer park residents. The trailer park image has changed from what it once was years ago and unfortunately not for the better. I’ve heard about this area being the winter home of Barnum & Bailey folks for many years with most employees/performers residing around the Mango/Seffner areas. But it’s interesting to hear some performers resided in Tampa. The fat lady in a skimpy outfit must’ve been an unforgetable sight. I guess the carneys were probably keeping a low profile so as to stay out of jail.

Snakes and water moccasins were a big problem at the Auto Park Drive-In. The theatre was located next to the bay off 22nd Street Causeway, and the open sewage pipe from the booth drained right into the bay. The projectionist had to carefully check the toilet before sitting down as snakes and water moccasins were known to occasionally surface in the bowl. Not to mention the mosquitoes here were the absolute worst. Every car that entered the lot automatically received a free Pic coil at the box office.

Juan1941 on April 2, 2012 at 7:17 pm

We never had any trouble with alligators when I was at the Tower Drive-In. There was a fence that kept all of us, including our customers, from wandering down to the river, but I don’t remember what type. We did, however, have a few incidents with snakes wandering into the bathrooms or projection booth. I managed to be somewhere else when it came time to clear them out.

Juan1941 on April 2, 2012 at 7:12 pm

Thanks, Nick. As I recall, the Hilltop was right on the corner of Florida and Waters (there might have been a gas station there as well). It sounds like the steahouse and grocery store were built on the original Hilltop property.

It’s interesting to think about the fact that both trailer parks and drive-in theatres were victims of the rising cost of land in developing areas. Trailer parks back then were more acceptable to a wider range of residents that they are today. Maybe Florida is different, but here in Virginia people are very wary of people who live in trailer parks. I still have a warm place in my heart for them, just as I do drive-in theatres.

The Hilltop was an interesting place. It was the winter home of a lot of Barnum & Bailey employees, including some of the performers (the circus itself wintered in Sarasota). I remember the Fat Lady sitting out in front of her trailer with a skimpy outfit trying to get a suntan, while eating a bunch of bananas to keep up her weight. We also had a sword swallower, who used to give impromptu performances to the kids in the park. I suspect some of the roustabouts had a police record, but we never had any trouble with them.

Nick DiMaggio
Nick DiMaggio on April 2, 2012 at 6:56 pm

Thanks tampapiz. I see the trailer park, and as Juan said, it covered quite a bit of territory from Bird Street north to Waters and east towards the track. Note the open field he mentions between the park and the greyhound track. Must’ve been a very nice area back in the day. Today 1-275 runs over a good portion of that field.

Juan, Today the Hilltop trailer park you described is probably the area where Wendy’s sits today. Wendy’s is near the southwest corner of Florida Ave. & Waters. Behind Wendy’s is a large parking lot and a plaza that once had a Ponderosa Steakhouse and Kash N' Karry grocery store both now long gone.

Yep, McDonalds is still there although the original building has been replaced at least 4 or 5 times since the early 60s. Seems like every 15 years or so they demolish the old building and replace it with a new modern McDonalds. McDonalds was the savior of so many people years ago who were living on a fixed income. Directly behind McDonalds is a low income government housing apartment complex.

I wonder if any alligators ever ventured onto the lot while the movie playing. Imagine opening your car door to visit the concessions stand and coming face-to-face with an alligator—-yikes! But there was probably a fence between the river and the drive-in lot.

Juan1941 on April 2, 2012 at 6:39 pm

Thanks, tampapix. That’s a pretty good indication of the size of the park, although I think what appears to be woods on the east side is an extension of the park as I remember it. Perhaps there was an expansion between the time of the photo, 1957, and the time I moved in, 1960. Or maybe it was just more woodsy than the rest of the park. In any event, it’s a great shot. Thanks again.

tampapix on April 2, 2012 at 5:29 pm

You can see the trailer park across the street in this 1957 Graber Aerial photo at the USF Digital Archives online. The photo is upside down, they have south at the top and north at the bottom. It needs to be rotated 180 degrees.

Juan1941 on April 2, 2012 at 5:59 am

The trailer park didn’t go all the way over to the dog track (there was a large open field in between), but it was a fairly large park nevertheless. A lot of snowbirds from Michigan and Ohio would come down and spend the winter. They were great people. I lived there for the nearly four years it took to get through college. My mother, who also lived there, bought an old trailer and let me use it for housing. All I had to do was pay the $19 monthly lot fee and the electric bill. I even took in a roommate to help with the expenses. Pretty good deal.

Prior to college, we lived in another trailer park called the Hilltop, which was at the top of the hill across Florida Avenue from the Tower park. It was smaller and less woodsy. I don’t know what’s there now. At the bottom of the hill on Florida was a McDonald’s, which opened while I was in college. It must have been one of the first in Tampa. I had never seen anything like it. Hamburgers for 15 cents and fries for a dime. A cheap supper for a guy with no money. Is it still there?

I don’t remember where we went skinny dipping. It wasn’t the “river” behind the drive-in. We could hear alligators at night there. I think it was a creek feeding the Hillsborough River, but I don’t recall where.

Nick DiMaggio
Nick DiMaggio on April 1, 2012 at 6:47 pm

Juan, That’s amazing! I had no idea there ever existed a trailer park across from the Tower, especially as extensive as you described covering ground from Bird St. north to Waters then east towards the greyhound track. That must have been quite a large trailer park! The K-Mart you mentioned still sits on the property today (it’s still open) along with two or three other stores attached to the main building. I’m sure you’re aware that section of town is not what it was years ago. Certainly not the worst but not one of the better areas of the city either.

Sounds like the Tower people were a fun group! You guys were lucky. The people I worked with at the Dale Mabry were much older than I. Not that we didn’t have a fun group…we really did. But I was 19 at the time and the three ladies I worked with were at least 60 & beyond. We had fun working together and they were all super nice people, but we never had any after work get-togethers. As soon as the concessions closed we all cleaned up and headed out. Once in awhile if I wasn’t very tired I’d sit in my car and watch the rest of the movie.

I can just imagine how awkward it must be having to face people I work with the following day after they’ve seen me in my birthday suite…LOL! Do you recall where the skinny dipping watering hole was located? I wonder if it’s still exists today.

Juan1941 on March 31, 2012 at 2:34 pm

Talk about bad luck! Opening a mall anchored by Zayre and Montgomery Ward must have been somebody’s idea of a bad joke (perhaps another version of Springtime for Hitler?). Thanks, Nick, for the history of the property after the Floriland closed. As I said, I was pretty young when I worked there but I enjoyed it.

When I found out the State was going to open a brand-new university north of Tampa called University of South Florida in 1960, I enrolled and then went looking for part-time work. I chose the Tower Drive-In because it was across the street from where I lived—the Tower Trailer Park. The park encompassed a lot of the property along Florida Avenue from Bird Street up to the top of the hill on Waters Avenue, and eastward toward the greyhound track. It was a lovely wooded park that was later leveled for commerce. I think a Super K-Mart was built on the property. It was a bad trade-off for society, in my view.

The Tower Drive-In folks were very friendly and jovial. After we closed and cleaned up the place on the weekends, we would break open the booze and sit around on top of our cars all huddled together, and solve the problems of the world. We also had a habit of going skinny dipping at a local watering hole after getting smashed. That made for some embarrassing moments the next night when we all showed up for work sober.

Nick DiMaggio
Nick DiMaggio on March 31, 2012 at 10:53 am

Thanks for the trip down memory lane Juan! I love hearing anecdotes and stories about our drive-ins. I worked at the Dale Mabry Drive-In refreshment center (Dale Mabry and Gandy) in 1969 and have a few stories of my own. Those were fun times! I drive by the Tower property at least once a week thinking here’s a beautiful piece of land that still sits abandoned. I still wish they had never demolished the drive-in. Although I didn’t frequent this theatre often (I live on the opposite side of town) I remember going several times from the late 1960s through closing.

The Floriland was the only drive-in in town I never had a chance to visit. A friend of mine was a relief operator there during the 1950s. His wife tells me she went with him every Friday evening and watched the movie from the car while he worked the booth. She said they had the best cheeseburger baskets with fries for only 99-cents. They both loved the Floriland. She said it was the best drive-in in town and only a 5-minute drive from their house. When the Floriland ran “From Here To Eternity” there were so many cars lined up on Florida Avenue that a cop had to direct traffic.

After the Floriland closed a grocery store opened next to J.M. Fields. I think it was called Pantry Pride. In the early 70s these buildings were absorbed into the new Floriland Mall anchored by Zayre department store at one end and Montgomery Ward at the other as well as a two-screen theatre called Floriland Cinema 1 & 2. The mall closed years ago and became an indoor flea market for some time, and later a city/county government center. Hillsborough County’s traffic court and a branch of the tax collector’s office were located here. I think most of these offices are now closed and the complex is nearly empty.

Today it’s impossible to tell there was once a drive-in theatre on the Floriland Mall property. Such is the case with so many former drive-in properties now completely obliterated by new developments.

Juan1941 on March 29, 2012 at 8:00 pm

By the way, I actually cut my teeth on another drive-in when I was about 16…the Floriland on Florida Avenue, north of the big mall built back in the 50’s. I think it was called Northgate Mall. I was a flunkee at the Floriland. The manager was Garland Flowers, a prissy older gentleman who was always nice to me. J.M. Fields but a big-box store next door and the lights hurt business. I remember the Fields roof collapsing, but I don’t recall why. I was too young to be in on the mischief at the Floriland, but it was good prep work for my experiences at the Tower.

Juan1941 on March 29, 2012 at 7:48 pm

Yes, Nick, I was actually afraid to show up for work for the next week or so. But I guess it was too dark during the chase, because he never spotted me. And I can assure you that I never worked the back rows again. I live in Virginia now, but get back to Tampa once in awhile. The wife and I always stop by the Tower property and reminisce about the drive-in’s heyday. We did a brisk business back then, with cars backed up onto Florida Avenue waiting to get in on the weekend. I was going to USF then and didn’t have two dimes to rub together, but I would bring my girl each night and she would watch the movie and wait for me to get off work. It was a cheap way to date.

Nick DiMaggio
Nick DiMaggio on March 29, 2012 at 12:02 pm

I bet you never ran so fast in all your life! And for the next few evenings you were probably hoping this guy wouldn’t remember you if he ever showed up at the drive-in again…lol!

Juan1941 on March 28, 2012 at 6:29 am

As part of my initiation as a new employee of the Tower in 1960, I was told to go to the back rows of the Tower toward the end of the second feature and tell couples not sitting up that they had to stop what they were doing. A huge guy came pouring out if his car with his pants down and started chasing me. He couldn’t get up any speed while pulling on his pants, or I would have taken a beating. My co-workers were laughing all the way. Those were the days.

Nick DiMaggio
Nick DiMaggio on March 7, 2012 at 10:56 am

Thanks Juan1941. Nice to hear comments from a former employee which you seldom see for theatres in this area. I feel the same way every time I drive by the deserted lot. Plans for constructing a hotel on the property fell through years ago. They should have at least waited until the plans had been finalized before demolishing the screen tower and concession building. If the screen and concessions were still standing the drive-in could very well have been reopened and still be in operation today. I understand the Fun-Lan continues to do good business so the Tower should certainly have been able to survive.

Juan1941 on February 19, 2012 at 7:38 pm

I have great memories of the Tower Drive-In. Worked there while attending USF, 1960-63. I was box office cashier, working for Ernie Plitz, great man and manager of the place. Met my future wife there. Now married 45 years. Projectionist was Harry Smith. We did great business back then. It’s sad to see the vacant property now.

redjayd on February 1, 2012 at 9:46 am

My grandmother retired from the tower drive inn. She was the manager for a very long time. I also worked the concessions and set up the marguee when movies changed (mid 70’s). Hated to hear that it was no longer in use. Good times!!

Nick DiMaggio
Nick DiMaggio on November 5, 2011 at 12:48 pm

Thanks John. The Tower signage was definitely one of the most original in town. Glad I was able to find the ad. The first time I visited the Tower was in 1968 when “Planet of the Apes” was playing. I’ll never forget the line of cars awaiting entrance which went down Bird Street towards Florida Avenue, wrapped around the corner on Florida Avenue, and went over the Hillsborough River bridge. Great times!

Mikeoaklandpark, The Tower’s screen was the standard size found in many drive-ins that didn’t have a Scope screen. But the worst one of all was the original screen at the Dale Mabry D/I. It was not only small but almost squarish and smaller then the Tower’s. Check the photo on the Dale Mabry D/I page and you can see how small it was for a drive-in the size of the Dale Mabry. It was finally replaced in 1964 with a larger & wider curved steel screen.

Mike, I haven’t seen you on CT for some time now…glad you’re back on!

Mike Rogers
Mike Rogers on November 5, 2011 at 10:14 am

great Comments,glad to see Nick back, mikeoaklandpark,just going by the way Nick spoke of it, got the impression it was one Tampa’s Best, did see sight when i visited Nick.

earthangeljohn on November 5, 2011 at 7:14 am

Hello Nick – thanks for sharing the photo and ads, I am very proud of my family’s neon sign work, and this is one of the most amazing neon signs they ever made in Tampa. The drive-in was still open when I was a kid in the 1970s so we went there often and always enjoyed the drive-in theatre there. Thanks again! – John V Cinchett (grandson of Frank Cinchett, founder of Cinchett Neon Sign Co.)

tampapix on November 4, 2011 at 8:25 am

Nick, thanks so much! This is great!

Nick DiMaggio
Nick DiMaggio on November 3, 2011 at 9:57 pm

Dan, Here are two congratulatory ads including Cinchett Neon Signs that was published on the day of the Tower’s grand opening on October 22, 1952.

Thanks for the TampaPix link above. Sure brings back some great memories!

tampapix on October 31, 2011 at 3:24 pm

Thanks for the offer, Nick. That would be great if you could get a copy of it and email to me or post here. I have a friend who is the son of John Cinchett, owner of the neon sign company who did many of the neons for Tampa businesses in the 50s and 60s. When I saw your grand opening ad, I emailed it to him and he said his dad did do the signage, and hoped to see if there was an ad from him as well. You can see much more of Cinchett’s signs here:

Mikeoaklandpark on October 31, 2011 at 11:00 am

Mike Rogers this was no great theater. The screen like all others in Tampa except 20Th Century were not wide enought to show films in scope. So any film in scope was off the screen and in the bushes. I hated it.

Nick DiMaggio
Nick DiMaggio on October 31, 2011 at 7:39 am

Dan, I need to check the Tower ad again. I researched the opening day by going through the Tribune theatre listings on microfilm at the library. When I found the opening day ad there was at least one full page of congratulatory ads as I recall. There may have been a Chichett Neon Sign ad although I didn’t look through all of them. I’ll be heading back to the library this week so I’ll check again. I’ll be able to locate the ad quickly since I have the Tower’s opening date. If I find a Chinchett ad would you like me to add it to the Tower page or do you just need to know they did the signage?