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Remembering the Davis Drive-In

Article Published 08/20/2015

If you lived in the Mala, Green Leaf or other Layton subdivisions just west of I-15, it was common 25 or more years ago after dusk to hear faint, almost ghost-like conversations outside, or through the window. That was one of the effects of the former Davis Drive-In movie theater, as the soundtrack noise fanned out.
Today the theater is gone, having had almost a 50-year-run, but going the way of many such outdoor theaters. Modern audiences favor the air-conditioned indoor theaters. Kohl’s Department store and other modern development now sits where the drive-in used to be.
The Davis Drive-In had opened in 1945, as World War II had just ended. It was the only drive-in found in north Davis County.
Charlie McElyea, Layton, had worked as a part or full-time employee at the Davis Drive-In for some 35 years, including 25 years as the manager. Back in its early years, the drive-in was the only business around, with open fields everywhere, McElyea once told the Deseret News.
Another Layton resident, the late Gail Strasburg, also worked many years in his youth at the Davis Drive-In. He once said he really enjoyed working there and that it was a tradition for many area families to go there – not just for the movies, but to be out in the evening air, socialize and be much more active/loud than indoor theater goers can be today.
In March 1958 the Davis Drive-In was the first theater bought by Tony Rudman, Sr., who later helped found the Trolley Theatres and Westates Theatres chains.
Two months after his father bought the Davis Drive-In, Tony Rudman Jr. was born.  As a boy, TJ's job was to patrol the drive-in.  "Sneaky teens clambering out of car trunks would freeze in the beam from Tony's flashlight," Tony Rudman, Jr. recalled.
On the Fourth of July the Rudmans would also entertain audiences at the Davis Drive-In with fireworks. "We'd shoot 'em into an alfalfa field," Tony Rudman, Jr. said. "We'd always set it on fire, and always had the fire department there to put it out. It was a great way to grow up."
The prime years from the Davis Drive-In were probably from 1968-1980. During that 12-year span, Layton City didn’t have an indoor theater – the Davis Drive-In was supreme.
Soon the Davis Drive-In was located just across I-15 from the popular Layton Hills Mall, which opened in 1980 and also included an adjacent indoor move theater. That nearby movie complex expanded even more in 1990.
"Drive-ins are just a thing of the past," McElyea had told the Deseret News. "Indoor movie attendance, dollar houses and videos are raising heck … Drive-ins are a lot more expensive to operate."
The advent of video rentals in the 1980s also put pressure on Drive-In attendance.
While indoor theaters could gain considerable profit from selling concessions, there's no way to stop drive-in patrons from bringing in their own food at a drive-in. In fact, that uniqueness became the trademark of a drive-in.
The Davis Drive-In used old carbon-type projectors, that would one day be very expensive to replace.  A theater’s movie rentals also became particularly expensive. By the late 1980s, theaters had to turn over about 80 percent of their gate profits back to the movie distributors on first-run movies. For second-run flicks, the figure was 50 percent, but such films attracted a lot fewer patrons.
In the 1950s, McElyea had said he could rent a new movie for only $150 a week. Vandalism and theft also plagued drive-ins -- a stolen or broken car speaker costs more than $30 to replace.
The Davis Drive-In employed as many as 16 people in its heyday, with two screens, with a capacity of 800 to 900 cars each.
Some drive-ins started having expanded operations to include weekly swap meets, in order to make ends meet – and that was briefly tried at the Davis Drive-In. However, it didn’t work well and was not financially practical.
In the spring of 1991 the Davis Drive-In opened for its final season.  Believing that the 23-acre site was worth more as prime commercial property than as a drive-in, the Rudmans put the theater up for sale. In November of 1992 developers demolished the Davis Drive-In to make the site more attractive to a potential buyer.
However, Kohl’s didn’t open until 2004 on the former drive-in’s site. Today, the Motor-Vu Drive-In in Riverdale, some 9 miles distant is the closest outdoor theater to Layton. Only a handful of drive-ins remain in Utah today.

SOURCES: Deseret News Archives, personal interviews.