Monday, July 5, 2010

The Chief Drive-In Theatre

These photos I took of the old Chief Drive-in Theatre marquee in south Topeka date back to March 9, 1993.  At the time, I had been reading about Wal-Mart buying the land where the drive-in had sat, closed and decaying for over ten years, to build a new store.  So, on that nice spring day 17 years ago I wandered around in what was left of the old outdoor cinema, photographing what I could before the construction of the Wal-Mart began.  

The sign in these photos was located at the entrance to the theater, on the west side of Topeka Blvd, just a little south of 37th St.  You entered here, drove west along a dirt road, stopped to pay, then drove on into the parking area, facing south towards the huge screen.  The Chief opened in 1953.  It was not Topeka's first drive-in. That honor goes to the Community, which was located at 25th and California.  They were eventually joined by a third, the Cloverleaf, located where the Dillons now is at US 24 Highway and Rochester Rd.  

Prior to the construction of these drive-ins, all of the movie theatres in Topeka were located downtown.   But now the suburbs were what was happening in the U.S., and in Topeka, too.  The early 1950's was the  heyday of the construction of new drive-in theaters.  In 1948, there were only 11 drive-ins in all of Kansas.  Just six years later, in 1954, that number had jumped to 107.  The peak year was 1958 when there were 125 of them in the state.  Then began the decline:  80 in 1967, 55 in 1977, and only 15 in 2000.  The Chief's last movie was projected in 1982.  The last movie I saw there was the re-release of Star Wars in 1979. It contained the first trailer I ever saw for the upcoming Empire Strikes Back movie, so that's probably why I remember it. 

At the time I took these photos there was nothing being mentioned in the news about what would happen to this sign.  Capturing it's image for posterity was the main reason I went over and took these pictures.  There wasn't much left of the drive-in itself.  The screen had been torn down, and none of the posts that held the speakers remained.  About all that was left, other than the marquee, was the foundation and some of the floor of the concession stand building.  I took photos that day, and shot some video, too.  The giant movie screen stood very close to where the front of the Wal Mart is today.  As it turns out, Wal-Mart ended up sending the Chief sign back to the company that originally built it to have it restored.  It was then  moved around to the 37th St. entrance of the Wal-Mart, where it still stands today. 

Why did drive-ins decline while movies overall have remained popular?  There are several reasons.  One big one is all the land required.  Back in 1950 you could cheaply buy some rural land just beyond the edge of town and put up a drive-in.  Land values have rendered the cost involved not really economically feasable anymore.  Many drive-in theater owners sold their lots for more money than they could make showing movies.  People also prefer the hi-definition sounds systems of modern indoor theaters over the poor quality drive-in speakers.  I just think indoor comfort and quality is what people want on a consistent basis for a night at the movies.  Drive-ins are now (if you can find one open) more of a place to experience nostalgia than a serious destination for a first run movie.


  1. My husband's grandfather J.E. Pennington built and owned the Chief Drive In. He recently returned from a visit to Topeka and was thrilled that it had been restored.

  2. there were 2 marquees that I remember as child, the Chief and I think it was a Cowboy. When you entered you went right to the Chief and left to the other drive in. Can anyone remember what the other one was?

  3. The Corral Theatre was adjacent to the Chief