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Sat, Dec. 07

An enduring passion for Prescott's only drive-in theater

The sign at the location where the Senator Drive-In Theater was once located.

The sign at the location where the Senator Drive-In Theater was once located.

In the Senator Drive-In theater’s heyday, it was on the outskirts of town and suitable for pajama-clad children in their parents’ station wagon, as well as all things teen — first cars, first jobs, first dates and first kisses.

A novelty when it opened in September 1950 — as the city’s only drive-in theater — the Senator quickly became a popular part of the local social culture. Some Prescott natives say it’s where they saw their first movie; a handful of Prescott High alums think of it today with a chuckle as the “Passion Pit.”

Class of 1963 alum Stephen Rogers remembers going to the drive-in as a child in pajamas and later as a teenager, when he fogged up his car windows with his date du jour. In those years, the drive-in was deemed one of the city’s safe “date” options, he said.

“I certainly never did anything others are losing their jobs for these days,” Rogers joked.

In 2008, he penned a reflection on the old theater that speaks to why he and classmate Jane Orr took a stand to spare the drive-in theater’s sign from the junkyard. The twosome spearheaded a restoration and fundraising effort with former alums that enabled the sign to be re-erected a year later in the city’s right-of-way.

“Those that grew up here still treasure those magical memories of warm summer nights at The Senator, car windows down, crappy speaker hooked on the door — teens hoping for a kiss or terrified of one. It was never a non-event …” Rogers wrote in his piece about saving this piece of local lore.

In the ensuing decade, Orr and Rogers, along with some other loyal drive-in patrons, have worked to maintain the sign, complete with posting occasional messages on the marquee to commemorate holidays, anniversaries, and at least one marriage proposal. The sole message prohibition: nothing commercial or political.

This past week, Orr and Rogers posted a Valentine’s Day missive: “Senator Drive-In — We Still Love and Miss You.” A big red heart is on the far side.

Orr’s nod to the drive-in nostalgia stems from the role the theater played in her life over the years.

As a teenager, Orr recalled going to the drive-in to see “Gidget,” starring Sandra Dee. As a young mother, Orr and husband, Jack, loaded up their two daughters in the family station wagon to go and see “Star Wars.” She laughs that they even went for a showing of the very scary “Omega Man,” starring Charleston Heston. Hoping her children were asleep during one particularly creepy scene, Orr said she glanced back to find her eldest starring at the screen with “eyes big as saucers.”

Orr said she can still hear the scratchy sounds that emanated from the speakers hooked up to the windows. She still chortles, too, at some of the teen antics at the Senator, like stuffing extra passengers in trunks to avoid paying a higher ticket price, probably around a $1 more for admission.

In her teenager years, Orr lived on Mount Vernon Street. She said she and her sisters would sometimes sit on the wall outside their house and wave to the boys driving up the street toward the drive-in. After the movies, she and Rogers recall a “dust ball” followed cars heading out the then-unpaved driveway.

For some teens, the drive-in was where they learned their first job skills. Orr said her friends talked about what a stickler owner Claude Cline was about the snack-bar inventory. Staff was expected to keep exact tallies on the hot dogs, candy bars and hamburgers sold, she said.

Prescott native Parker Anderson, who will be 54 in April, said he remembers going to the drive-in to see a repeat performance of the Prescott-based movie “Junior Bonner,” the Steve McQueen movie that includes scenes filmed in The Palace Saloon on Whiskey Row.

‘“I think I can even remember seeing a ‘Muppet” movie there on its first run,” Anderson said.

Though he did not drive then, or now, Anderson said he knows the drive-in was a go-to spot for many.

“Those were marvelous days,” he said.

Orr concurred.

“It was magical,” she said.

Follow Nanci Hutson on Twitter @HutsonNanci. Reach her at 928-445-3333 ext. 2041.

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