Duwamish Drive-In was not really about the movies

May 11, 2016, 8:37 AM | Updated: Jun 26, 2021, 8:32 am
One of Seattle’s grandest drive-in theaters was the Duwamish, which opened on this day in 1948. (...
One of Seattle’s grandest drive-in theaters was the Duwamish, which opened on this day in 1948. (Feliks Banel)
(Feliks Banel)

Along with bowling alleys and skating rinks, drive-in movie theaters are one of those 20th-century entertainment industries that required a large chunk of conveniently located real estate in order to succeed. But as entertainment choices expanded, the population grew and real estate values climbed, these were the kinds of businesses that didn’t quite pencil out anymore.

One of Seattle’s grandest drive-in theaters was the Duwamish, which opened on this day in 1948. The film shown for the grand opening was “The Voice of the Turtle,” a wartime homefront romance starring Ronald Reagan.

The Duwamish was set in a fan-shaped, poplar-lined meadow along the banks of the Duwamish River in Tukwila just south of 112th on the old Pacific Highway, which was the only north-south main route connecting Seattle and Tacoma in those pre-freeway days.

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Local entrepreneur and longtime history buff Jerry Vandenberg was born in 1940 and grew up along the Duwamish River in the Riverside neighborhood. He spent many a teenaged-night at the Duwamish Drive-In in the 1950s.

“During the intermission, the radios went on loud, and we’d jump up on the roof of the car and start dancing,” Vandenberg said. “It was just a place where you could be a teenager without anybody caring what it was that you were doing.”

And what, exactly, were those teenagers doing away from prying adult eyes? At the Duwamish and other local drive-ins, apparently just about everything you can imagine.

Though the Duwamish was one of the most popular theaters in its heyday, it wasn’t the first drive-in around here; that honor goes to the Midway along Highway 99 in Kent, which opened in April 1942 as the Northwest Motor Movie. World War II was raging in those days and Seattle was bustling with defense plant workers. The Northwest Motor Movie offered 1:30 a.m. showings so that swing-shift workers wouldn’t have to miss out on the movies (or the privacy).

The Midway showed films until the 1980s and then became home to a swap meet; it was torn down in 2005 and replaced with a big box store.

New Jersey has the honor of having opened the very first drive-in anywhere back in 1933.

A newspaper ad for the grand opening touted the Duwamish as “America’s Finest” and claimed that, “No expense has been spared to give you the finest Drive-In Theatre in America! Every new development of science has been incorporated to ensure you the finest possible visual and sound projection!”

The ad went on to promise the “world’s largest screen, baby bottle-warming service, individual speaker with own volume control,” and “no parking or dress-up problems.”

Drive-ins theaters really took off after World War II as America’s famous “car culture” revved up and went full-throttle — with car radios playing popular music, drive-in restaurants serving hamburgers, and big suburban shopping centers like Northgate and Bellevue Square offering the convenience of huge parking lots.

Other drive-ins that popped up around here in the postwar years include the Aurora in north Seattle; the Eastside in south Kirkland; the Sunset (where the Factoria Cinema is now located); the Kenmore; the Puget Park in South Everett; the Valley in Auburn; the Samish in Bellingham; the Thunderbird in Marysville; and the Circus Drive-In on Highway 20 near Anacortes.

And though the drive-in phenomenon started happening before television began to really chip away at the movie industry in the 1950s, drive-ins continued to offer the privacy and escape from adult supervision that family living rooms did not.

Another habitué of the Duwamish Drive-In is longtime local radio guy and former KIRO newsman, Tony Miner. Miner grew up just up the hill from the Duwamish Drive-In in White Center, and he’s a bit younger than Jerry Vandenberg. Miner says that as a 16-year-old in 1969, he had an old ‘53 Chevy with a Peace sign in the rear window and that he was a “hippie with long hair.”

“For kids growing up in White Center, the Duwamish was one of those go-to places,” Miner said. “One of those places where you took a date. You had Lincoln Park, you had Alki Beach, maybe even Seward Park. You didn’t really go to watch the movies if you know what I’m sayin.’ If you had a good night — if you had a lucky night — you didn’t see anything of the movies.”

For Jerry Vandenberg and for Tony Miner and pretty much every other teenager, it’s clear that the Duwamish Drive-In wasn’t really about the movies. Miner says another thing it wasn’t about was the concession stand.

“One thing I really remember, the concession stand, the food was terrible,” Miner said. “The pizza was just awful, like a piece of cardboard with tomato sauce on it. The popcorn was dry. The hot dogs buns were dry, the hot dogs were wilted. Even the soda was flat.”

Miner also says those little speakers that were mounted on posts for the movie audio were pretty lousy, too. But, he says, that wasn’t the point.

“You were on your own. You were mobile, or you were maybe taking a date down there. It wasn’t about the crappy sound or the crappy food,” Miner said.

Though most local drive-ins have closed, there are still a few left operating around Puget Sound, including the Blue Fox Drive-In south of Oak Harbor on Whidbey Island; the Wheel-In Motor Movie near Port Townsend; and the Rodeo Drive-In near Port Orchard.

When the Duwamish Drive-In closed in December 1980, it did so without the fanfare of the 1948 grand opening. Newspaper schedules at the time said it had just closed for the season, but it never reopened.

The screen and concession stand were eventually torn down and replaced with a big Boeing office complex a few years after that. The old footprint of the Duwamish is mostly inaccessible nowadays and the old grounds are surrounded with “KEEP OUT” signs. But you can still relive at least part of the Duwamish experience with King County Parks’ Green River Trail that goes right along the river next to the remnants of the old poplars that used to separate the parking area from the river.

By the time of its closing in December 1980, the film offerings at the Duwamish had also changed somewhat since 1948. “The Voice of the Turtle” and similar family-friendly cinematic fare were no longer on the bill. The grand finale triple-feature at the old drive-in included “How to Score With Girls,” “Naughty Schoolgirls” and “The Carhops.”

And what became of Ronald Reagan, whose film had started it all at the Duwamish in 1948? In December 1980, he had just defeated Jimmy Carter and was about to become president.

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Duwamish Drive-In was not really about the movies