3306 West Hillsborough Avenue,
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Previous Names: Spark's Drive-In
Tampa’s first drive-in theatre!! Of all the drive-ins in town this one was my favorite. The theatre was built near what was then the outskirts of the city. Today this area is near the very center of the city. When the drive-in opened in 1941 much of the land in the surrounding area was primarily pasture. Hillsborough Avenue had only recently been widened and the artery that would later become Dale Mabry Highway to the west was little more
than a trail.
The grand opening was held on Saturday, April 5, 1941. Here’s the word-for-word opening day ad from The Tampa Tribune:
Something New! – ‘Movies in your Car’ – Visit Spark’s new $50,000 Drive-In Theatre open for inspection today from 2 to 7 P.M. – Hillsborough Avenue at Lincoln Road
Outdoor Drive-In Theater To Open For Patrons in Cars. The new Spark’s Drive-In Theater, an outdoor movie house accommodating 400 automobiles at a time, will be opened tonight on Hillsborough Avenue about three miles west of Florida Avenue. Parking places are arranged so that occupants of each car can see the huge screen at one end of the grounds. Sound emerges from 196 underground loudspeakers scattered through the area. Automobile lights are turned out as cars enter the lot, and ushers direct drivers to the parking spaces. Incoming and outgoing cars move in lowered lanes so they don’t interfere with vision of occupants of parked cars. Tickets are sold at the entrance and an attendant wipes the windshield. Ice cream and soft drinks will be available during the performance so that the car occupants won’t have to get out of their seats.
The show for tonight’s opening performance will be “Goldwynn Follies” starring Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. The gate will be opened at 6:30 o'clock to permit movie-goers to view the theater before the show goes on.
The theatre opened as Spark’s Drive-In Theatre and was renamed the Hillsboro Drive-In by 1955, by which time it was under the ownership of ABC Florida State Theatres and was that chain’s only drive-in in the state of Florida. And according to legend it was also reported to have been the first drive-in in Florida although this has never been verified. Plitt Theatres would later acquire ownership in the mid-1980’s.
My earliest recollection of going to the Hillsboro would be around 1955 so I developed a devotion to this theatre at a very young age. Going to the drive-in during this period was a family affair. Tampa had already received it’s first television station though at the time not very many people could afford a television set. So the next best thing was the drive-in. The family would usually head out on a Sunday evening along with a bag of homemade sandwiches, bottles of soda, and the grandparents and aunt in the rear seat.
Heading west on Hillsbrorough Avenue we were several blocks from the theatre when in-between the tall trees the rear of the screen came into view with it’s huge flashing red and blue neon target sign which could be seen from blocks away. At five years of age I can still recall the excitement of seeing the huge screen as we approached the entrance. Entrance to the theater was at the rear of screen. From the box office the road curved to the right and around the corner of the screen into the lot. Along the way between the tall trees were several poster displays of coming attractions mounted on billboards.
Over the years the theatre was modernized several times. A new cinder block addition to each side of the screen during the 1950’s widened the original screen by several feet. During this earlier period the concession stand featured several rows of bench seating at the front of the building for those who preferred to view the movie outside their car.
I heard from a very reliable source that the Hillsboro’s manager at the time, Mike McKinney, started the very first flea market in this area in the early 1960’s. I recall seeing the on-screen ads for something new, "a flea market where you could bring all your junk or unwanted items from your home or attic or unload grandma’s treasure chest and bring them out to sell at our flea market on the weekends." Today’s flea markets in the area can trace their beginnings back to the very first one at the Hillsboro Drive-In.
The Hillsboro’s program consisted of second-run double features for many years which was the norm for drive-ins during this period. In the early days a newsreel and a cartoon were also featured. Most new releases opened at the downtown theatres first before opening at the drive-in weeks and sometimes months later. There were also some grade-B films that usually bypassed the first-run theatres and went directly to the drive-ins.
In 1969 Florida State Theatres announced a new 1,000 seat indoor theatre to built on the property adjacent to the drive-in. The new building was constructed on the children’s playground directly below the front of the screen. The drive-in remained open during this construction phase. Prior to the indoor theatre’s grand opening the drive-in closed for several days while a new 100' wide steel screen was erected. This new screen was curved and tilted slightly downward for better viewing from every parking space.
The new screen was several feet wider and was also installed closer in towards the lot placing it much too close to the original booth for proper projection. So a new booth was constructed behind and above the roof of the concessions building providing a better throw to the screen.
Following the installation of the new screen and booth, the drive-in had a grand reopening celebration with a Dusk-To-Dawn Horrorthon on Saturday, June 21, 1969: GRAND REOPENING CELEBRATION! OPEN ALL NITE! DUSK TO DAWN!
Completely New Easy Park Ramps…Best in Projection & Sound…Tampa’s Only Self-Service Air Conditioned Snack Bar…Good Food…Pronto Pups… Butter Popcorn…French Fries…Hot Dogs…Deviled Crabs…Burgers…Pizzas…Coffee
…Cold Drinks. And on our giant new curved screen Edgar Allen Poe’s “THE HAUNTED PALACE” / “PREMATURE BURIAL” / “THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM” / “THE CONQUEROR WORM” / “HOUSE OF USHER” / “THE RAVEN” / All in color! And for those who stay till dawn…free coffee and donuts!
I remember one evening when it was just about dark enough for the show to begin several impatient patrons began blowing their horns. The agitated projectionist broke into the pre-show music and announced: "all right…those of you who are blowing your horns are not gonna get the show started any sooner….the show is scheduled to began in 10 minutes and it will not began before then SO YOU CAN STOP BLOWING YOUR HORNS!!!" In the early-1960’s the Hillsboro began running dusk-to-dawn horrorthons which became very popular during the later 1960’s and throughout the 1970’s. The program usually consisted of 6 or 7 features that ran till sunrise. Free coffee and donuts were served at dawn for those who had stayed all night. The features were almost always horror/sci-fi films but I recall at least once when they ran an Elvis marathon.
Horror and sci-fi films were always a big draw and the management of the Hillsboro knew it. According to a former projectionist, the Hillsboro’s manager would contact Florida State Theatres district office in Jacksonville and request 6 or 7 of the least expensive horror/sci-fi features available. A couple decent ones and the others from the bottom-of-the-barrel! The rental rates on most of these 35mm prints was said to have been in the neighborhood of $5.00 to $25.00 per print depending on the title. The admission for these marathons was usually $1.50 to $2.00 per person. So between admissions and concessions the drive-in did very well. The one-price-per-carload admission was usually suspended for the dusk-to-dawn specials. These marathon shows were always sell-outs. You had best arrive early if you wanted to ensure a good space. As cars began arriving and linning up, the line would stretch from the box-office back to the entrance, around the corner and down Hillsborough Avenue for a couple blocks. Before the end of the first feature the lot was usually at capacity so no additional cars were allowed in. They remained in line until the end of the first feature when several cars would exit and the same number would then be allowed in. There was usually a continuous line of cars sitting at the entrance waiting for others to exit. Usually by the end of the third feature the line had diminished although I remember leaving once after the 4th feature, and there were still a few cars awaiting entrance.
I managed to stay through one of these all-nighters until dawn only once! There were 7 features that night. It was interesting to observe the comings and goings of cars. As the evening wore on and as each feature ended a few more cars would exit the lot and others would enter. By the end of the 6th feature there were only a handful of cars remaining (maybe 30-40) who were determined to stay till the end. It was about this time that the Krispy Kreme donut truck arrived. As it drove inside the lot there was the sudden sound of car doors opening and slamming shut as the remaining all-nighters headed for the concession stand and lined up. With eyes all bleary they slowly made their way through the line to the open donut boxes. I recall each person was allowed to take two donuts and a cup of coffee. Not sure if seconds were permitted.
Dusk-to-Dawn shows were not exclusive to the Hillsboro. Other drive-ins would also run them from time to time although they played more frequently here. In addition to these all-nighters they regularly ran either a triple or a 4 feature horror/sci-fi program at least every other weekend during the 1960’s and 1970’s. In looking through the microfilm ads I was amazed at how many and how often they ran.
One of the more popular films was "Night of the Living Dead" which always guaranteed a full lot whenever it played. The first time they ran it all sorts of shrieks and screams could be heard throughout the lot. After the film had ended a small group of teens had gathered at the car next to mine and were discussing the film with comments such as, ‘ugh - wasn’t it gross?!!’
I spread the word about the film to several of my friends and co-workers and all were anxious to see it. Not knowing how long it would be before the film would return to the area, I drew up a request letter and gathered about 20 to 25 signatures from co-workers and friends and mailed it to the distrct manager of Florida State Theatres. About a month later I still hadn’t received a reply so I placed a call to the district office in Jacksonville. After explaining to the receptionist who I was and mentioning the request letter, she transfered me to the district manager who told me they had received my letter but there was a problem.
The theatrical distributor of "Night of the Living Dead" (The Walter Reade Organization) had apparently gone into bankruptcy therefore tying up all prints of the film so none were available for booking at the present time. He assured me as soon as they became available the film would be booked again for the Hillsboro Drive-In. Hearing that story I suspected it may be up to a year or more before the film returns but within a couple months the film was back.
Here are a few dusk-to-dawn shows on the actual dates they played: Saturday, July 9, 1966 “RETURN FROM THE ASHES” / “THE NANNY” / “DIE! DIE! MY DARLING!” / “WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?” / “CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED”.
Saturday, August 30, 1969: “DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE” / “NIGHTMARE IN WAX” / “TOMB OF TORTURE” / “BLOOD OF DRACULA’S CASTLE” / “EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN” / “THE SHE BEAST”.
Saturday, September 20, 1969: “ASTRO ZOMBIES” / “WAR OF THE ZOMBIES” / “TEENAGE ZOMBIES” / “PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES” / “REVOLT OF THE ZOMBIES” / “MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS” / “THE SLIME PEOPLE”.
Saturday, June 21, 1971: “CURSE OF THE VAMPIRE” / “THE GREEN SLIME” / “NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD” / “DINOSAURUS!” / “QUEEN OF BLOOD” / “KISS OF THE VAMPIRE”.
And here’s the only one I ever stayed all night for on Saturday, April 18, 1970: “RASPUTIN THE MAD MONK” 7:15 / “THE HUMAN VAPOR” 9:05 / “FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD” 10:35 / “DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE” 12:10 / “GHIDRAH, THE THREE HEADED MONSTER” 1:50 / “THE REPTILE” 3:20 / “EEGAH!” 4:55
There was also the Hillsboro Drive-in Church. In-car worship services were held at the drive-in every Sunday morning. If the church congregation arrived too early on the Sunday morning following a dusk-to-dawn show, they would have to wait for the final feature to end in order to begin worship services. At the film’s end any remaining patrons would then have to leave the lot quickly lest they were invited to join the worship service.
Thank goodness the Hillsboro remained a single screen drive-in till the last day of operation. A second screen was never added due to the lot simply not being large enough. Alhough I suspect if it were still open today the current owner would most definitely have found a way to add another screen.
The Hillsboro Drive-In remained in operation through September of 1983 when the land was sold to a developer for construction of an apartment complex. The indoor theatre buildings located on the front parcel of the property facing Hillsborough Avenue were not part of the deal. They remained open for several more years.
As was the case with many drive-ins across the country, the property they sat on had become far too valuable for a drive-in theatre when the land could be developed for more profitable commercial use. This was compounded by diminishing attendance over the years with the advent of the VCR as the final nail in the coffin for many drive-ins.
So the Hillsboro’s days had come to an end. The final evening was on Monday, September 26, 1983. I knew about the closing in advance only because of a small announcement in the papers a few days prior. I was there for that sad and somber last night. There were only a few cars on the lot that evening and I wondered how many were aware it was the Hillsboro’s last night.
The two films were “War Games” and "Poltergeist". At intermission I went to the concessions stand and bought a cup of buttered popcorn, a hot dog, a hamburger, and a soda. I bought these mainly because I wanted the cups and wrappers as souvenirs. As "Poltergeist" was nearing the end I suspected that either the manager or the projectionist would be making an announcement at the film’s end. “Poltergeist” finally ended. The credits were rolling and cars were heading for the exit. There were just a handful of cars remaining on the lot. At the conclusion of the credits the picture went off the screen and the sound was turned off followed by total silence. The end of an era and not one single word. There was no mention or acknowledgement of the closing. Not even a "thank you for so many years" on the marquee as other drive-ins that had gone before had done. Tampa’s first drive-in theatre with over 42 years of motion picture exhibition and no recognition from management which I found very distasteful and sad.
Within the next few weeks the screen was dismantled, the concessions building was demolished, and the land was cleared. Shortly afterwards I drove out to the site late one evening and stood at the front of the lot where the base of the screen once was. I looked out over what was now a wide open sand lot…the Hillsboro Drive-In now a pleasant and sad memory.
Construction of the apartment complex commenced shortly afterwards. Today the entrance to the complex is the same entrance to the former drive-in. The road now has a brick surface and a median with trees in the center. The entrance leads to the guard station where the box office once stood.
The adjacent Hillsboro III Theatres remained open for a few more years before being demolished and rebuilt as the Hillsboro Eight Theatres. The Century Buick Dealership now occupies the former Hillsboro Eight Theatre building.
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