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A Trip Down Memory Lane Through Drive-In Theaters

Joe Quaintance, who built more than 30 drive-in theaters from Virginia to New York, at home near Culpeper.
Joe Quaintance, who built more than 30 drive-in theaters from Virginia to New York, at home near Culpeper. (By Eugene Scheel)
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By Eugene Scheel
Sunday, May 4, 2008

While getting a haircut in downtown Leesburg, I asked my barber, Sidney Smith, if he had ever been to a drive-in. Many times as a youngster with his family in the 1960s, he told me. Overhearing us, a customer in his 20s asked: "What's a drive-in?"

The conversation occurred because I was trying to find the name of a long-gone drive-in movie theater in Culpeper County so I could put it on a historical map. Someone finally referred me to Joe Quaintance, who had built the theater.

As Quaintance and I talked, I realized that this man could be considered the 1950s drive-in king of the mid-Atlantic and Northeast. Now 85, he put together the guts of more than 30 of the theaters -- trenching, electrical wiring and speakers -- and often filled in as a projectionist.

When I visited him recently at the home he constructed for his family in 1960 near Culpeper, he greeted me with a map of Virginia and Maryland and showed me, with a highlighter, the locations of 18 drive-ins he built in those two states. He estimates he worked on another 15 in Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York.

The Virginia projects stretched from the North Carolina line to the Potomac River and included four theaters in the Virginia Piedmont -- in Manassas, Warrenton, Culpeper and Orange. Among the Maryland locations were theaters in Baltimore, Annapolis and Prince George's County.

Benjamin Thomas Pitts, the movie mogul of Northern Virginia, paid Quaintance to activate nine of the Virginia theaters, as well as a West Virginia drive-in near Harpers Ferry.

In the late 1920s and 1930s, Pitts had launched or remodeled the indoor movie theaters in Fredericksburg, Orange, Culpeper, Warrenton and Leesburg. Many addressed him as Senator Pitts, for he represented the Fredericksburg area in the state Senate from 1944 to 1958. Quaintance, a close friend who did not live in his district, called him Mr. Pitts.

In the late 1940s, when gasoline rationing had ended and the typical Piedmont family could afford an automobile or pickup, Pitts picked the region as a place to try to cash in on the new drive-in movie craze, which was sweeping through much of rural and small-town America.

Going to the drive-in was "like a weekend outing, a family picnic," said Smith, who remembers the theater near Harpers Ferry quite well. "You walked around, visiting friends, going to the snack bar. You knew you were somebody if you saw your friends at a drive-in. If you didn't have a lot of money, you could fix a little picnic basket and have drinks and ice in the cooler. You took that speaker and put it down on the blanket."

Piedmont bankers weren't so sure about this new fad. So Pitts asked Culpeper's mayor and well-known investor, T.I. Martin, if he could help finance several of the theater projects. Martin did, and around 1948 he asked Quaintance "if I would do the electrical work in a drive-in they were building," Quaintance recalled.

Quaintance had grown up in Culpeper and had wired houses since 1938, when he was 15. He figures that the 2 1/2 years he spent in the Navy were worth "five years of education" in electronics and radar. "Went to school seven days a week, 12 hours a day," he said.

Electrical wiring was the make-it-or-break-it of a drive-in, Quaintance said.

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