Urbana Autoscope Drive-In

Highway 65,
Urbana, MO 65767

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Urbana Autoscope Drive-In

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This was the first "autoscope" drive in. It opened on July 30, 1953, and first feature shown was "By the Light of the Silvery Moon". Located 4 miles south of Urbana, it was owned and operated by Tom Smith of Urbana, who invented and patented the concept of "autoscope" drive ins, in which small indivdual screens were arranged in a circle, and the film was "back projected" on the screen from the projector in the center of the circle. Each car pulled up to its individual screen from the outside of the circle. The Urbana Autoscope Drive-In had space for 42 cars. This drive in was only in existance for 2 years.

In 1954, Tom Smith opened the much larger Buffalo Autoscope Drive-In in nearby Buffalo which had a 122 car capacity.

Contributed by Bob Brown

Recent comments (view all 14 comments)

Mike Rogers
Mike Rogers on June 10, 2010 at 2:59 pm

I have a nice book on Drive-in Theatres from everywhere and they show this set up.

bbrown1 on July 2, 2010 at 8:56 pm

You have to remember that in 1953, all television screens were tiny, and virtually all television programming was in black and white. Even if the show was broadcast in color, most of us had black and white televisions. So the concept of being able to see a movie in color on what would then have been considered a huge television screen would have been much more appealing at the time, especially in a small rural town. It has occurred to me you could reconstruct an autoscope with big screen television sets and DVD’s today! I have seen some of the equipment that was used to create the autoscopes, and it was a very complicated system that required lots of maintenance. I knew the people who eventually owned the Buffalo Autoscope, and that was the primary reason they converted to a conventional drive in after it had operated for about 20 years as an autoscope. The primary advantage of the autoscopes in the 50’s was that you could being a drive in theater to a very small town without a large investment. Later in the 70’s, there was an advantage that if you wanted to show “adult” movies at a drive in, you could do it without “offending” community morals, and being targetted by the authorities, as often happened to conventional “adult” drive ins, with their huge screens. The creation of VCR’s moved these movies to home video, and pretty much killed all of the “adult” theaters.

I have been trying to trace the history and existance of autoscopes, but since they were usually in small towns and/or short lived, it is difficult. I believe over the years there were actually quite a few.

CSWalczak on July 2, 2010 at 9:56 pm

There are two pictures of the Buffalo Autoscope theater here (scroll down): http://www.americandrivein.com/states/mo.htm and a picture of a similar theater in Albuquerque, New Mexico here:http://www.drive-ins.com/pictures/nmtcirc005.jpg

CSWalczak on July 2, 2010 at 11:51 pm

There was a mention and a small picture about Tom Smith’s Autoscope system (described there as “Private Movies”) in the November, 1953 issue of Mechanix (sic) Illustrated (click on the thumbnail captioned “New In Science”): View link

bbrown1 on July 8, 2010 at 8:07 pm

That would be the Circle Autoscope Drive-In Theatre in Albuquerque, which I think is the only other one listed in Cinema Treasures besides the ones in Urbana and Buffalo. I have heard mention of an autoscope drive in in LaCenter KY, but have been unable to verify any other information about it.

Thanks for the link to the Boxoffice article about Tom Smith. I know he was still alive as recently as 1997. He would be about 84 if he is still alive. From talking to people who knew him, he really enjoyed the mechanical part of creating things more than he did the actual business of running a drive in.

texas25th on April 27, 2013 at 8:50 pm

Hello Mr Brown, I wish to Thank You for posting your information about Tom Smith and his Autoscope. I have a very dear friend who now lives in Waco Texas but grew up in Buffalo and Urbana on the family ranch off of 65 a stones throw away from the Autoscope. My friend O.K. Kelso first met Tom in front of the Dallas theater in Urbana at the young age of 14 as O.K. was very curious about the business and wanted to learn. Tom and O.K. quickly became very good friends along with Bob and Virgina while becoming a fantastic projectionist and technician working with Tom and Bob on many theater projects with the Autoscopes being a couple of them. He tells many a story about working with Tom helping him align the many mirrors in the mirror room of the booth and maintaining and aligning the screens. O.K. moved to Waco Texas 50 yrs ago today to continue his projectionist career which Tom and Bob had so graciously taught him. The move to Waco came during the time frame Tom was building the 2nd larger Autoscope of which O.K. custom built the amplifier system for Tom at his request. After O.K. left for Waco his communication with the Tom & Bob became somewhat distant however remained friends until Tom died of stomach cancer in 1965.

If you have any information on where Tom or Bob is buried he would greatly appreciate knowing. Also any additional pictures would be fantastic!

Thanks again!

Kris4077 on October 16, 2013 at 9:18 am

Occasionally when looking at satellite photos of drive ins I see one with a more rounded shape as oposed to the mor common triangular shape. I wonder if these might have been Autoscopes, Because I have seen satellite photos of a converted autoscope wich was round but had the ramps and a single screen on one end. Of course some Autoscopes were probably plowed under and rebuilt into a more traditional D-I. Just some food for thought when looking at satellite photos or historical arials of old D-I locations. You might also look for a more rounded concession stand. It sure would be nice to find out how many existed, alas we will probably never now.

Kris4077 on October 16, 2013 at 9:31 am

Check out this website with some pictures Of the Tri-Circle Autoscope Drive-In in washington, which is on CT, just search for Tri-Circle. They are awesome http://www.film-tech.com/ubbpics/ubb672.html

Lynda_Brown on July 15, 2014 at 5:54 pm

Hello Trey aka “texas25th”. Tom Smith was my great uncle. I’m Virginia and Bob Smith’s great grand-daughter. To answer your question, all three are buried side by side in Humansville, Missouri. Uncle Tom actually died from throat cancer in 1986 (he was not a smoker but they said he got it from serving in the service when he went to the Philippines). His brother Bob passed away the same year. My Great grandma passed in 2005 after suffering from Alzheimer’s for over 8 years. My, mom Cathy Brown-Romo is the oldest of the grand-daughters and she took care of grandma during her illness. She would love to talk to you and share memories and pictures. My personal email is .

I look forward to hearing from you! Lynda Brown

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