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Rambling Boy

February 28th, 2013 under West Texas Talk

Ballroom Marfa revives the drive-in theater

By LONN TAYLOR

Marfa is about to become the site of the world’s most expensive drive-in movie theater. The theater will be built by Ballroom Marfa on 8.35 acres of land in Vizcaino Park, which has been leased by the Ballroom from Presidio County. According to Melissa McDonnell, the Ballroom’s project manager for the theater, the total construction cost of the project will be four and a half million dollars. That is a lot of money to spend on a drive-in.

Ballroom Marfa Drive-in, rendering by MOS 2012

Drive-in theaters were a common feature of the American landscape in the 1950s and 60s. The first one was built in Camden, New Jersey in 1933 by chemical manufacturer Richard M. Hollingshead, who nailed sheets to trees in his back yard and balanced a projector on the hood of his car in order to determine the proper angles and throw distances before starting construction. He advertised his theater with the slogan “The Whole Family is Welcome, Regardless of How Noisy the Children Are.”

The popularity of drive-ins was a function of the baby boom that followed World War II, when many young families had noisy children. There were just over a hundred drive-ins in the United States in 1946. By 1948 there were 820, and by 1958 there were 5,000.  Most of them accommodated 400 or 500 cars, but the Panther Drive-In in Lufkin, Texas, one of the largest in the country, had spaces for 3,000 automobiles. Drive-in owners added playgrounds for the children and concession stands, some of them serving full meals, for adults. Even Marfa, with a population of 3,600, had a drive-in, which opened in 1953 just west of the cemetery and closed six years later.

Drive-ins proved to be a short-lived cultural phenomenon. The development of color television and rental videos combined with rising urban real estate values made them unprofitable, and most of them closed in the 1970s and 80s. In 1960 twenty-five percent of all American movie theaters were drive-ins; today the figure is one and a half percent. It might appear to be pure folly to open a drive-in at the bottom of a plunging trend.

But the Ballroom’s drive-in is not going to be built on the 1950s model. It will be a twenty-first century drive-in, perhaps justifying its cost. It will accommodate only ninety cars, but it will have amphitheater seating for 1200 people between the cars and the screen. Melissa McDonnell describes it as “a pedestrian drive-in.” It is really an outdoor events space where concerts and performances incorporating film can take place, an open-air multimedia center. According to McDonnell, it was inspired by the Red Rocks Amphitheater, a natural amphitheater near Denver that seats 9,450 people and is a popular concert venue. Architect Michael Meredith of MOS, the New York firm that is designing the space, told me that the forty-foot wide, fifty-two foot high tilted screen will resemble an acoustically coffered band shell, and the cars will be parked on a series of mounds that will place their occupants at a ninety-degree angle to the screen. In designing the structure, Meredith has made use of engineering manuals from the 1950s that contain specifications for drive-in theaters, but he has also consulted with contemporary film curators and projectionists from the Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Meredith knows the peculiarities of the territory here because he was a Chinati fellow in Marfa in 2000. In his formal statement about the project he says, “We hadn’t experienced weather as an object until we lived in Marfa, Texas.” He is undaunted by the challenge of designing a facility for which there is no precedent in such a remote location; he told me that all of his firm’s current projects are in remote locations. When I asked him for examples he said, “We’re building an orphanage in Katmandu, a folk school in a village in Jutland, and a house on Georgian Bay in Canada.”  Meredith clearly understands remoteness and plans to produce a state-of-the-art structure.

The pioneer Marfa rancher Luke Brite was a devout member of a Protestant religious denomination called the Disciples of Christ. He and his wife, Edie, joined the Disciples at a camp meeting held in 1911 by Addison Clark, one of the founders of Texas Christian University. The Brites endowed the Brite College of the Bible, now Brite Divinity School, at T.C.U. They also hired a Phoenix, Arizona architect, Leighton Green Knipe, to design the First Christian Church in Marfa. Knipe gave them a magnificent building whose sanctuary will seat five hundred people. The Brites clearly operated on the If You Build It They Will Come theory.

The only problem was that they didn’t come. The Disciples are a small denomination, and even during World War II, when Marfa’s population was swollen by two military installations, there were never more than two hundred people in church there, and that was on Christmas and Easter. The congregation eventually dwindled to six, and the church was closed several years ago. It now stands empty on the west side of the courthouse square.

On the other hand, the If You Build It They Will Come theory has worked for other institutions in Marfa. Who would have thought, when Donald Judd moved here in 1972, that his work would turn a drought-blighted cattle town into an international art center? Who would have thought that you could find three Michelin-quality restaurants and a superb bookstore in a West Texas town of 2200 people? Who would have thought that a community-supported public radio station could flourish in the most remote and thinly settled part of Texas? Miracles do happen in Marfa.

Four and a half million dollars is a lot of money to gamble on the If You Build It They Will Come theory. McDonnell says that construction is expected to start next year and the theater is to be completed in the summer of 2015. Whether They Will Come or not remains to be seen. If another miracle happens and they do, it will be a great thing for Marfa.

Lonn Taylor is a historian and writer who lives in Fort Davis. He can be reached at taylorw@fortdavis.net

Story filed under: West Texas Talk

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