Drive-In Left Lasting Memories

            People of a certain age will have memories of going to a drive-in movie theater. As little children, the back seat of the family car became a playground until it was time for the movie to begin. Then we’d be admonished to settle down with our buckets of popcorn, piles of candy, and tankards of soda pop.

            But who can remember when you didn’t need to leave the Tri-Town area to enjoy going to a drive-in? Rochester was home to one of the first drive-in movie theaters on the south coast. We cast a wide net to capture as many memories as possible of those days when people could go to a drive-in right here in Rochester.

            The Carreau family lived on Mattapoisett Road in Rochester. A large family with 10 children (six boys and four girls), the father worked long, hard hours as an overseer in the mills of New Bedford. Leo was an enterprising man who must have had a good amount of imagination coupled with know-how. As his son, the now 89-year-old Gerard, walked down Memory Lane, we were introduced to a father who was a fascinating and dynamic man.

            Carreau said his father held a high position in the mills where he worked long hours. His son said that “as a hobby,” he struck upon the idea of building a drive-in movie theater in his own backyard. “It was located next door to Church’s farm,” Carreau began. “There was a stage and a big screen in the backyard.” He described how his father constructed berms in two loops across the lot so that “the cars would pitch upwards at the nose.” The speakers were strung among the nearby trees.

            Carreau’s memories come to him as a river flows in spring, fast and easily. Exhausting a burst of memory, he waits quietly until another thought comes along. “He rented the films, I suppose, like ‘Frankenstein Meets the Werewolf.'” He chuckled gently at that memory as he also recalls the cowboy movies and cartoons.

            More memories came knocking. “At intermission, he’d play a game like ‘Name That Tune’ and, if you guessed right, you’d get a pot of big silver dollars!” Carreau laughs again, enjoying the opportunity to share what are obviously very fond memories. There was dancing and singing up on the stage, his memory offered, with everyone getting into the fun.

            Carreau said that his father also purchased a building shaped like a bucket from the Doane family of Rochester. He placed the building at the entrance to the lot and sold ice cream, candy, and, he thinks, possibly hot dogs and hamburgers. That structure would later be sold, he said, to Poyant’s Cider Mill in Acushnet. “The kids, us, we had to prep the food, you know.” It was all hands on deck, he said.

            The cost to enter the drive-in was either 25 cents a carload or 50 cents a carload, depending on whose memory one taps. Carreau said that he was about 12 when the theater was in operation around 1951. Others thought it ran until the 1960s. Carreau said his father only had the theater open for about five years, but, regardless of the cost of admission or the timeframe, the experience left an impression on many in the Tri-Town and surrounding area.

            “There would be crowds on the weekends,” Carreau recalled, but for him and his siblings, “We could watch the movies from our living room.”

            To protect possibly the most significant investment of all, the projector, the senior Carreau built a little house, his son remembered. “It was dug into the ground so the cars could see over it.”

            “This was before TV, you know,” Carreau stated, an era when going to the motion pictures was a popular form of entertainment as leisure time became a reality for working people.

            The first outdoor theater is said to have been built sometime in the 1910s, but the first patented drive-in theater came along in 1933. Richard Hollingshead of New Jersey was granted a patent. It must have been a significant personal triumph. As that story goes, Hollingshead wanted his mother to be able to comfortably watch movies. But the narrow seats in the indoor theaters were simply not wide enough for her. Later Hollingshead marketed the concept of outdoor movies as a welcoming place for the whole family, including noisy children.

            Taken as a whole, the popularity of drive-in pictures had a relatively short lifespan. The heyday came during the 1950s and ’60s as families grew in suburban sprawl farther away from town and city centers. In areas where large tracts of land were still affordable, business-minded folks only needed about 15 acres for a drive-in theater. Like this, new recreational attractions, many with playgrounds and some with full restaurants, sprang up across the country. There were an estimated 4,000 drive-ins during this time. Affordable for the family and suitable for date nights, drive-in theaters were extremely popular.

            Then came the ’70s. Technological advances in color televisions and later compact recording equipment made watching films at home convenient. Indoor theaters survived the advent of the video cassette recorder, but the drive-in became an endangered species as cars became smaller and land more expensive. As attendance at the outdoor venues dwindled, owners sold their land to developers. The age of the drive-in movies slipped away. Today there are only 300 drive-in theaters in the country.

            Herbert LaFleur recalls the Rochester Drive-In this way: “They had a big screen in the back of the house.… It cost 50-cents [and] every time I go by that place, I think about it.” Lois Ennis remembered the ice cream stand and the movie screen, but other images have faded with time. Art Brenner recalls the scary movies and going there with his mother, father, and brother occasionally. Several more people could remember the location of the theater, but memories of going, other than to say they went, were simply gone like the theater itself.

            But wait, one senior citizen remembers the Rochester Drive-In as if it were an oasis in a desert. Brad Hathaway of Mattapoisett was a young teenager when his father purchased land on Wolf Island Road to carve out cranberry bogs.

            “Oh, it was awful, hard, terrible work,” Hathaway began as his memories were revealed. His father conscripted him and his brother to the bullwork of turning swamps into bogs. “We wanted to be with our friends on Saturday, but we had to work on those bogs.” He described the blood, sweat, and tears of those Saturdays toiling in the swampy woods, but come evening, they were treated to movies at the Rochester Drive-in Theater. “It was great fun; it was our joy! If we didn’t have that to look forward to, we would have lost our minds,” Hathaway said with a laugh. He recalled Tarzan, Wolfman, and cowboy movies. “It was great; I could never forget the Rochester Drive-In.”

            Sadly, the Carreau family has no documented evidence that the Rochester Drive-In ever existed on Mattapoisett Road. But they do have many lasting memories of their childhood, including having one of the first TVs in Rochester and later one of the first color TVs. And yes, even a bowling alley in the basement for the family’s personal use. “We had pool tables, too,” said Gerard Carreau. “My father knew how to keep us busy.”

            Leo Carreau not only provided for his large family, but he also gave them and many others something far more valuable, the gift of happy memories.

By Marilou Newell

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