What a Rabbit Hole! - The Ranch Drive-In Theatre, Hartselle, Alabama
One of the first things I do when I get an old drive-in movie speaker with a name stamped or embossed on it is Google where it may have possibly come from. It’s amazing how far some of these have strayed from home, especially if it’s one you’ve found “in the wild” and not bought online. This particular speaker I acquired by meeting a man at a gas station not far from where I live. I had a hunch about where it was from, but what I didn’t expect was the rabbit hole that would follow after starting to research it!
Right off the bat, the speaker is an odd ball. It’s not from a manufacturer that I’m familiar with at all. The casting on the rear says “Cryer Speaker Service, Birmingham, Ala”. Searching for that company came to a dead end – nothing. It’s possible that it was cast in Birmingham, Alabama, as the casting process wasn’t uncommon in the Steel City of the South. Then again, if could have been cast anywhere and “Cryer Speaker Service” just had enough made that it was feasible to have their name put in the mold. I know this speaker was from the 50’s, possibly even the late 40’s, so other than a trip to the courthouse for records or possibly The Birmingham Public Library this little mystery will probably be unsolved.
What isn’t a mystery is where it was from – The Ranch Drive-In Theatre in Hartselle, Alabama. This is where I saw the rabbit hole and decided to jump in. Hartselle is a beautiful old town of about 15,000 people that has a fantastic downtown area with some cool antique shops and neat places to eat – one of which will most likely be a place that I write about in the future. It’s also close enough to me that I know a few people from there, and this led me to calling a friend of mine’s father who used to run around there as a young man. When I asked him if he remembered the Ranch Drive-In I could “hear” him perk up over the phone line as he began to tell me about it, and how he and the neighborhood kids would all pile into the bed of a pickup truck for $1 a car movie night! He even started to tell me exactly where it was, and what was there now. And after looking on Google Maps, you can still make out where this theater once stood.
The Ranch Drive-In Theatre, with it’s “Texas Ranch” motif for the sign and decorated concession stand, opened for business Tuesday August 5th 1952 after being built by local businessman Hubert Mitchell. The first movie shown that night was the western “The Lady from Texas” staring Howard Duff, Mona Freeman, and Josephine Hull. The opening night of the theater was a success with a sold out crowd of 450 cars – and thousands of cars reportedly being turned away! The mayor of Hartselle John Burleson and Mr. Mitchell gave a speech and then there was a fireworks presentation.
Like the rest of the country, Alabama had its fair share of drive-in movie theaters built during the boom of the 1950s. I can think of seven that I know of in my head on US-31 within a 50 mile stretch alone. I’m sure there were even more. Of course, none of those exist any longer. While researching The Ranch Drive-In, I also came across some interesting information regarding owner Mr. Hubert Mitchell.
Hubert Mitchell had owned a theatrical staging company in Hartselle making stage rigging, props, draperies, backdrops that was named after himself (eventually becoming United Stage Equipment) since the late 1920s. He also ended up owning some other theaters and a diner as well. Apparently as a boy he had built his own airplane by studying photographs and successfully flew it - having never seen one in person! He claimed to have found a 90 year old Jesse James ‘Alive!’ in a prison, got him out, and took him on a promotional tour. But, even more interestingly was his involvement and eventual purchase of the Bobbi-Kar automobile and how it became known as the Keller Car company after WWII. Mr. Mitchell was the main financial backer of this little known car company that planned to make small family cars for just under $850 each in Huntsville, Alabama by utilizing his furniture factory that had been building seats for airplanes and other transports for the war effort. Keller Cars has its very own fascinating history. Only 18 cars are believed to have ever been produced with only THREE surviving to this day! For more details about Mr. Mitchell and Keller Cars, please refer to my notes below for two fantastic sources that go into much more depth and detail.
Back to The Ranch Drive-In, for years it was a staple in the community, but it found itself having financial issues in the late 60s and started playing movies that weren’t exactly coming out of the brightest spots of Hollywood. Like other drive-ins at the time, The Ranch would show more risqué adult and sexploitation movies to make a profit. At the same time, Alabama Governor Albert Brewer started to enforce a 1907 Alabama obscenity law and began shutting down drive-in’s showing X-rated movies. July 9th, 1969 The Ranch was raided by State Investigators and the Morgan County Sheriff’s office during a showing of “The Shanty Tramp”. Headlines were made across the state as the theater manager at the time was arrested and eventually convicted of “Failure to abate a nuisance which tends, or threatens the health of its citizens in general or corrupt the public moral” as well as possession of an obscene film, showing an obscene movie, and contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
Within two years after the raid it was announced that new apartments and townhouses would be built where the Ranch Drive-In was located. So after 20 years, The Ranch Drive-In Theatre was no more. Today, Spanish Trace Apartments is where the drive-in once stood.
Notes and Credits:
Thank you to Mr. Jimmy Blackwood for talking to me over the phone about The Ranch Drive-In and old Hartselle, Alabama.
If you want to read more about Keller Cars and Hubert Mitchell, please visit these two fantastic websites:
Lisby, Carroll. “Mitchell’s Dream To Come True With Drive-In Opening.” The Decatur Daily, August 3, 1952.
“Mitchell Pleased With Drive-In Opening.” The Decatur Daily, August 7, 1952.
Turner, Winford. “Ranch Drive-In Closed During Statewide Raid.” The Decatur Daily, July 10, 1969.
Cooper, Dick. “Drive-In Theater Manager Convicted.” The Decatur Daily, January 30, 1970.
“Apartment Units Set In Hartselle.” The Decatur Daily, August 27, 1971.
Cinemas Around the World – Ranch Drive-in Theatre, Hartselle, Al
Farber, Arnold. “Theatre Catalog: 11th Annual All New Edition 1953-54.” Philadelphia, PA: Jay Emanuel Publications, 1953.
Keller Car Image By Mark Holloway from Beatty, Nevada, USA - 1948 Keller Super Chief, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11693200