Dale Mabry Drive-In
Dale Mabry Highway at Gandy Boulevard,
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Located in south Tampa not far from MacDill Air Force Base, the Dale Mabry was one of Tampa’s largest and finest drive-in theatres. It sat inland from the southwest corner of Dale Mabry Highway and Gandy Boulevard with the marquee facing the intersection at Dale Mabry and Gandy. This theatre had one unique feature you would probably not find at any other drive-in across the entire country. A landing strip for the owner’s private aircraft.
The grand opening was held on Tuesday, August 2, 1949. The opening attraction was "Adventures of Gallant Bess" in Cinecolor with Bess the Wonder Horse and a mighty cast of favorites.
From an article published in the Tampa Times on the day prior to the opening:
NEW DRIVE-IN THEATER TO OPEN
Gala Premiere Set Tomorrow
A gala premier will mark the opening of Dale Mabry Outdoor Theater tomorrow night. One of the most modern in Florida, the drive-in, at the corner of Gandy Blvd. and Dale Mabry Hwy. is owned by P.J. Sones and Sam T. Wilson. For it’s grand opening, 2,500 balloons have been ordered for younger guests, and occupants of the first car to enter will receive prizes, Mr. Wilson said.
Covering 26 acres, the Dale Mabry Outdoor Theater is designed to park 736 automobiles.
It will be open daily, with three weekly program changes. Admission will be 50 cents including tax for adults, and children under 12 years of age will be admitted without charge.
A feature of the theater is its Brenkert projection lamp, one of the latest developments for outdoor theaters, making its first appearance in the south with tomorrow’s opening, according to Fred Bearden of the Southwest Theater Equipment Co. Atlanta. Raymond Crosby, a former State Highway Patrolman, has been employed as traffic manager for the theater.
According to Mr. Wilson, the Dale Mabry Theater location was discovered from Mr. Sones' plane. "We noticed from the air that it was an ideal location because of the constant flow of traffic on two adjacent roads," he explained. Mr. Wilson, born in Mississippi, has been in the theater business for several years. Mr. Sones, who has 22 years of flying experience, was in charge of a C. A. P. anti-submarine patrol during World War II. His home is in Haines City where he also has citrus interests.
A landing strip has been constructed on the theater property for Mr. Sones Beechcraft plane.
And on opening day, a full two page spread in the Tampa Times along with the Owners Message:
We take great pleasure in presenting the Dale Mabry Drive-In Theater to Tampa and the Tampa Bay area and feel that it ads a touch of distinction and high standards of motion picture presentation in your city. It is a friendly theater, a part of this growing community and we would like to think that you will consider it a part of your everyday life. Please feel free to make any suggestion to the management that will add to the pleasure of your visits. We hope that you will enjoy your Dale Mabry Drive-In Theater and that you will spend many happy hours with us.
Mr. P.J. Sones
Mr. S.T. Wilson
THE DALE MABRY POLICY
The pictures which will be shown will be of the best offered by the major studios of Hollywood. You will see here the greatest stars of the screen in their outstanding roles. The supporting parts of the program (short subjects) will be given special attention. Time and research will be expended constantly to the end that every offering at the Dale Mabry will embody a well-rounded-out, carefully chosen program, no single unit of which will prove a disappointment to you. Of special interest and an exclusive feature will be Universal News, on our screen each Sunday and Monday, arriving direct from the laboratory with news and pictures of the latest world events.
DALE MABRY "EXTRAS" To Better Serve You
- Baby bottle warmers at your service.
- Free playground for the children.
- Soft…Medium…Loud…The latest "In-Car" Speakers are provided for your extra enjoyment. After placing speaker inside door, adjust volume control to the tone desired…as simple as tuning your radio.
- Ever eat dinner and see a movie at the same time? Bring the entire family for a complete dinner or just a snack. Have a shrimp or chicken basket while enjoying the show.
- Courtesy…Service…From the moment you approach our entrance until you leave the theater our specially trained attendants are on the alert to guide your car to the proper location in the theater and offer every other courtesy to make your evening one of pleasure.
- Ramps and spaces are numbered for your convenience when returning from the concession, etc.
- Refreshment Center…Visit our modern refreshment center…Located directly in the center.
- Over 736 car capacity…Greater convenience than ever before…Greater services than ever before…Greater movies than ever before…Florida’s finest outdoor showplace…the utmost in motion picture entertainment under star-lit skies.
Though there may have been other owners following Mr. Sones and Mr. Wilson, by the 1960s the drive-in was owned and operated by Tampa Bay Theatres, Inc. and later by Carl Floyd of Floyd Theatres.
The Dale Mabry had a nice wide spacious lot. Each parking space had extra room with each row spreading out extra wide at the ends. The last few rows at the rear were spread wider than a full city block. The one drawback was the screen which was small for a drive-in this size. This was later remedied when a larger screen was installed.
My very first memory of attending this theatre was about 1959 and the double feature was "Lil Abner" and "Friendly Persuasion." The Dale Mabry was clear across town from where we lived so it was only on rare occasions the family would venture that far to a drive-in when there were others much closer. A few films I saw here over the years that come immediately to mind are: "Macabre" "Experiment in Terror" "Village of the Damned" "Fate Is the Hunter" "Bye Bye Birdie" "A Hard Day’s Night" "Georgy Girl" "The Sound of Music" "Thoroughly Modern Millie" "Planet of the Apes" "Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice?" "2001: A Space Odyssey" "Yellow Submarine."
In the early-1960’s the concessions posted about 10 tickets stub numbers. If your stub number was one of 10 posted on the blackboard you won a free carload pass. On one particular visit I had the distinct feeling our stub held one of the winning numbers. So I took the stub over to the blackboard to check and surprise! Our number was actually listed so I received a free pass. I had never won anything before in my life.
Towards the end of 1963 or the beginning of 1964 the Dale Mabry Drive-In closed for at least two evenings while a new larger screen was installed. From the newspaper ad: We are installing one of the largest screens in the state of Florida…curved and tilted for perfect viewing from every parking space…able to withstand winds up to 200 miles per hour. I called the box office to inquire about this new screen and was told the old screen was 60' wide and this new one will be 100' wide.
I remember calling to find out when the Dale Mabry would be getting "The Sound of Music" which was nearing it’s year-plus-run at the Palace Theatre downtown. The manager laughed and said, "I can’t say yet but I really wish we could get that one soon." And if memory serves me well I do recall that the Dale Mabry was ironically the very first drive-in in town to play "The Sound of Music." But by then so many people had seen it repeatedly at the Palace that the lot was barely even half full.
The original concessions building was a standard sized building with two entrances on each side and a wall-to-wall counter with a small waiting area in front. Small but functional. Around 1964 this building was demolished and a brand new ultra-modern semi-circular concessions building was constructed. This new building had 4 huge sliding glass doors: one at each corner of the building front and rear and two self-service sides.
The lines formed at the rear on either side and customers made their way down the semi-circular line helping themselves to foods from the various heated bins and on down to the cashier at the front. This same design soon made it’s way to many drive-ins across the country but the Dale Mabry was the only drive-in in town that featured this exclusive style.
Most of the following deals with the 6 months I spent working here in concessions. Following the description of the theatre I decided to pad the story out with some of my experiences while working here. Some may find most of what follows trivial and unimportant in regards to theatre descriptions while hopefully others will enjoy it somewhat.
In the summer of 1969 a friend and I decided to apply for a job here. Driving out one afternoon we pulled into the empty lot and noticed one car parked behind the concessions building so we knew someone was here. An elderly lady greeted us at the door and we inquired if there were any openings. She said yes but we would need to speak with the concessions manager who was not in as yet so she asked us to return later that afternoon.
When we returned she introduced us to the concessions manager who’s name was Mickey. Her claim to fame was that she had been raised with Mickey Rooney. She swore it was true! She was a short lady with spiked high heels and a hearty loud laugh. And she usually kept us in stitches. Think of a short & stout Ethel Merman and you’ve visualized her to a tee.
She said yes, they needed some help and could use us three or four nights a week so the positions were part time. She explained what our duties would be, the days and hours we would be expected to work, and what our salary would be. The duties were making popcorn, pouring sodas, chopping onions, dispensing butter on the popcorn, making certain the heated bins were always filled with boxes of popcorn, burgers, hot dogs, tater tots, pronto pups, and afterwards general cleanup at closing time. Thank goodness we didn’t have to deal with the cash register at all…that was Mickey’s job.
We were required to wear a white shirt and a tie and dark slacks. The pay was $5.00 a night for about 5 to 6 hours each evening. The hours were generally 5:00 until closing which was usually 10:30 to 11:00 or later depending on the number of features playing. So my take home was about $20 per week. And included with each week’s pay were two free passes for family and friends. At Christmas we received a $5.00 bonus. Nevertheless I enjoyed working here for the short time I stayed which was about 6 months. I began in August 1969 and left in February 1970.
Since the two positions were part time the extra help was needed on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings. And on some occasions they needed at least one of us for an extra weekday whenever a really popular film played. We met our coworkers Mrs. Tom and Rosie, two very nice elderly ladies, and also a young guy (his name escapes me) who would be showing us the ropes. Mickey later told us that she had planned to let him go once we were trained and she felt comfortable enough that we were able to handle the job. She said he was a nice guy but he just wasn’t dependable and he only showed up for work when he wanted to.
We were later introduced to the theatre manager, Mr. Mac. The box office cashier was Connie, the guy who took care of the marquee and general maintenance was Randy, and the projectionist was Julio.
My first task when I arrived each afternoon was to chop onions for the burgers and hot dogs. These were real onions, not dehydrated. Using a knife was tedious so I brought my vegetable chopper in but that really wasn’t much quicker. I also checked the heat setting on the food bins and made certain all bins were filled with popcorn boxes, burgers, and hot dogs. My friend Terry made the popcorn and began filling the boxes and loading them into the heated bins. Mrs. Tom took care of making pizza and was also the back-up for Rosie who cooked the tater tots, pronto pups, burgers, and hot dogs. These fried foods were kept under a heat lamp on the outside counter.
I filled the ice bins under the soda dispensers and made certain we had a good supply of cups on hand. Just about everything in concessions was made available for the customer to reach in and help themselves with the exception of drinks, pizza, and butter which were dispensed by us. Customers requesting a pizza were handed a numbered ticket which they presented to the cashier. Since the pizzas were pre-made the wait time was not much longer than 5 minutes.
One rule I was taught about butter on popcorn: only one squirt for a small cup and two squirts for a large. Many customers asked for extra butter so I learned to fake it by turning the cup back and forth underneath the butter dispenser so it appeared they were getting several squirts but only clicking the dispense lever once for small and twice for large. But apparently you can’t please everybody. Terry said one lady asked him for extra butter and so he gave her several extra squirts. When he handed her the cup she looked at the popcorn and said, "you put too much butter on my popcorn!" You can’t make stuff like this up!
As employees we could have as much popcorn and soda as we wanted at no charge. But we had to pay half price for any food items. One of my guilty pleasures was to take the white plastic container the liquid butter came in and empty it into the butter dispenser leaving a tiny bit of butter at the bottom of the container. The sides were also coated in butter and so I’d shove several handfuls of popcorn into the opening and shake the container up good. That made for some delicious butter drenched popcorn!
Although we didn’t have to deal with cash one golden rule we were taught was that in this business you never give a customer their money back. Offer them a rain check instead. I wonder if this still holds true today although I sort of doubt it.
When the show was ready to began a loud buzzer would ring in the back room of the concessions.
That was Julio the projectionist alerting us to flip the switch on the wall which turns out the lights at the rear of the lot. So one of us would run to the back and flip the switch. You would think the switch would have been installed in the booth.
Every evening just as the movie was ending Mickey would yell, "o.k. guys, man your stations—here they come!" And come they did through all 4 doors. Suddenly we were surrounded by people on all sides of the semi-circular counter. I filled the cups with ice and poured coke, sprite, and orange drink as fast as I could. And they were snatched-up just as quickly by thirsty customers. The counter had a plastic built-in cup holder with holes for about 50 cups. Some customers would not take a full cup from the holder even if I explained that I had just poured the drink. "I don’t want that one…it’s been sitting there…I want the one you’re pouring now" were comments I heard often. And the same with popcorn. Some customers would not take a box from the heated bin. They wanted popcorn directly from the popper. And I guess you can’t really blame ‘em for that.
The line of people seemed never ending on some evenings. On some nights I’d pour drinks non-stop for a good hour or more. Sometimes I’d run low on ice and if the others were busy I’d have to quickly run to the ice machine at the back and load up the bucket. When both sides were open we had a second cashier to help which as I recall was either Connie from the box-office or Rosie. But on slow or normal nights we only opened one side which was much easier.
One evening a lady storms in with a half-eaten pronto pup asking for a refund.
Lady: look at this pronto pup…it’s half raw! I want my money back!
Mickey after examining it: no, it isn’t raw…we cook our foods well…you want your money back after eating more than half of it?
Lady: I told you it’s raw…look at it!
Mickey: It isn’t raw…had you brought it back after two or three bites I would have given you a refund but you’ve eaten more than half of it.
Lady: so you’re not gonna give me a refund?
Mickey: " no…not after you’ve eaten more than half!"
Lady practically screaming by now: then I’m gonna tell all my friends and everyone else I know not to ever come to this drive-in!
Mickey: you do that!
The lady then turns around and walks out in a huff.
On another occasion an irate customer tells Mickey that she had over-charged him. Her response was, "the extra charge was for that pronto pup you ate while standing in line!" She said she has to constantly watch these people in line. Some will try and gobble down food quickly before they make it down to the cash register. But with her eagle eye not many could get away without paying.
One evening during rush hour two or three kids butt into the line and began opening the doors on the food bins, slamming them shut, and making a noisy ruckus. Mickey rises from her stool at the cash register and tells the next customer in line, "just a moment I’ll be right back." She approached the kids, slams both her hands full force down on the counter and screams, "STOP IT!!! I SAID STOP IT!!" And slamming both hands again on the counter, "I SAID GET OUTTA HERE NOW!!! GET OTTA HERE NOW!!!" The kids took off running and everyone in line was shocked and speechless.
She walked back to her stool and sat down. The lady behind the man waiting to pay was so nervous she tipped her large cup of soda all over the counter spilling a little on the man in front. She was just about to cry as she apologized over and over. Mickey reassured her very calmly, "that’s o.k…don’t worry about it…that’s fine…it’s no problem at all." So I poured her a new cup of soda. Later Mickey told us that wasn’t the first time those same kids had been there. She said their parents are gypsies and screaming is the only way these kids will listen and obey. "You’ve got to yell at them with fire in your eyes!"
"Strip!" Mickey would yell out when it was time to run the on-screen notice alerting patrons the concessions would be closing in 10 minutes. Either Terry or I would walk out to the booth and alert Julio to run the 10-second strip at the next reel change. The Dale Mabry ran this on-screen notice rather than cutting in on the sound as other drive-ins would normally do. The strip was a black 35mm film with "refreshment center will close in 10 minutes" printed in white letters at the bottom. In order to run this 10 second strip the projectionist had to wait until one projector was free. If one was currently running and the other was threaded up we would have to wait for the changeover. The strip could then be threaded and run and the white lettering projected over the on-screen image.
In 1973 the Dale Mabry ran the exclusive Tampa showing of the color remake of "Lost Horizon."
Huge letters spelling out the title were placed high on a tower at the rear of the lot. I remember seeing the film here one evening but I can’t recall now if I enjoyed it or not. I remember it bombed big time at the b/o and became known in Hollywood as Lost Investments.
Asking if the drive-in had ever sold-out any showings I was told when they ran "Bonnie & Clyde" the lot was filled to capacity. They had people still asking to pay so they could enter the lot even knowing there were no empty spaces. They just wanted to come in and park on the side to see the movie even if they couldn’t hear it. I also asked if the Dale Mabry was ever going to run a dusk-to-dawn show. I was told not to even mention that. Mickey said they had one awhile back but they had better not do that to us again. We like to get out at a decent hour not at 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning!
"86" was the lingo for let’s close-up shop. When we heard "86" we closed and locked the sliding glass doors and began the clean up process. It was just general counter clean-up. I don’t recall having to sweep or mop floors or anything of that nature. And after we were done and we closed the concessions building I’d get in the car and leave. Every once in a while I stayed to see the remainder of the movie but not that often. I was probably just too tired and anxious to get home.
At the beginning of 1970 Mickey told us that big plans were in the works for the Dale Mabry. She had been to a demonstration of a prototype drive-in for the future. She excitedly told us that plans for a second screen to be added on the lot were in the works. And the film’s soundtrack would be broadcast in beautiful stereo sound that you would pick up on your car radio. But the most amazing thing was once you drove outside the lot you would no longer be able to hear it. An electronic fence would encircle the lot to block the signal from going beyond. "The fence will be there but you can’t see it!" she said. Any cars that didn’t have a radio would receive a loaner at the box office. The concessions building would be completely remodeled and a beautiful full service restaurant with a glass dome was to be built on the upper level. You could sit and watch the movie from the restaurant if you wanted. A tire punch mechanism would be installed on the exit lane to prevent cars from entering the lot by means of the exit. There would be a posted warning stating "your tires will be severely damaged should you proceed any further."
Nearly all of this is old hat by now as many of us have seen much of this stuff come and go along with many drive-ins that had most or all of the above amenities installed. But in 1970 this stuff was unheard of and almost came across as something out of science-fiction. In any case none of this ever materialized at the Dale Mabry.
By February 1970 I had decided this had been a fun job for the time I had been here but now it was time to let it go and concentrate on my regular job. I called Mickey and explained my reason for leaving and she was perfectly fine with it. So my short career in show business had come to an end.
The drive-in continued to thrive into the first few years of the 1970s but a decision had been made which would spell the end for the Dale Mabry. The last night was Sunday, July 14, 1974 and the final two features were "Old Yeller" and "The Incredible Journey."
This was the first drive-in in town to close in nearly 10 years. The closing was not a result of declining attendance but was due to construction of the new crosstown expressway. The south end of the expressway ended on the drive-in property. The entrance and exit ramps were to be constructed at the rear of the lot. When the ramps were completed they cleared the lot with some room to spare. So with some slight modifications the drive-in could have in fact remained open.
Several months after the drive-in had closed I drove over and pulled into the empty lot one day to look around. The concessions building and box office had been demolished but the booth was still standing and I noticed the door was open. I walked in and was shocked to see 35mm film scattered all over the floor and a reel laying on the ground. I picked it up and noticed it was the intermission ads and promos that were run every evening. I guess some kids or vandals had been inside and unspooled nearly the entire reel. I gathered it all up and stuffed it into my car and I still have it today. Other than a bunch of trash there was nothing else in the booth. All projection and sound equipment had been stripped out.
The booth was demolished shortly aferwards and construction began on the expressway. The screen remained standing in the empty weed filled lot for several years afterwards. "This Property for Sale" was later painted in the center of the screen. The property was eventually sold to a developer and today the former drive-in lot is home to a huge apartment complex.
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