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My Drive-In Days are Over

By Michael Keller

When I moved back to West Virginia as a high school senior, the Valley Drive-In in St. Albans was a major hangout for Kanawha Valley teenagers.

You could just as easily see a carload of guys or girls scoping out the opposite sex, as you could a couple enjoying the farthest corner of the parking lot. The fare was grade B, the price was cheap. For $5 I could get 75 cents in gas (this was 1971), two tickets to the show, one of those funky drive-in theater pizzas and a large cola to share with my date. And the summer I graduated I could count on an almost weekly $5 check from some relative to get me to the show.

Valley Theatre
Whether solo, a couple or a crowd, the routine was the same. We got to the drive-in early to grab a good spot. A big challenge was testing speakers until you found one that not only worked, but sounded decent. We made sure everyone got to enjoy our extensive collection of eight-track tapes while we proceeded to clean the windshield with Windex and paper towels. We were meticulous; the show might be bad, but we wanted to see it. Typical flicks included spaghetti westerns, science fiction, horror movies and teen love nonsense. We ate it up.

Fast-forward to the '90's: By then the Valley Drive-In is an anomaly, showing first-run films in direct competition with the big mall multiplexes that killed our downtown movie houses. And here I am, back at the Valley with my wife and two daughters, watching The Lion King.

The place is overrun with minivans, and kids running back and forth from the playground to the cars to the snack bar. The old playground equipment is gone, but about 50 kids are divided into groups a football game here, Frisbees there, tag over there. My daughters leap out of the car and run over to join, Lauren quickly organizing a game. Picnicking is the plan around many of the vehicles.

We quickly discover that modern cars are not made for the drive- in. The girls wind up in the front seats, Sandi and I in the back, craning our necks to see past the headrests. The Valley's speakers still work, but the best sound is from your car radio, the theater broadcasting the movie over a small transmitter.

The Valley closed for good in August of 1996, joining Welch's grand Starland, the East in Huntington and others all victims of the high property value of flat land in West Virginia. It's sad; the Valley has always been a landmark. Even those who didn't go to the show knew where it was, and gave directions by it. "Oh, go down Route 60 to Route 35, there where the Valley is," they'd say.

Now it will be "where the Valley used to be."

Michael Keller photographed the Summer 1995 GOLDENSEAL feature about West Virginia's disappearing drive-in theaters. He hates to see another one go.

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