Hyde Park Drive-In still reels them in

Pass the popcorn, please, and recline your car seat — another fun night at the drive-in is about to start rolling!

The movies moved outdoors 80 years ago, in 1934, when drive-in theaters were born and quickly became a staple for moviegoers across the United States.

The outdoor theaters — variously called Auto Vision theaters, drive-ins, family theaters, or even ”passion pits” — reached their heyday in the 1950s and 60s before heading into decline due to short summer seasons, weather conditions, suburban sprawl and land development, and other economic factors.

Today, there are only about 400 drive-ins throughout the country, according to the Mother Nature Network. Among the survivors are 10 considered “classic” by Internet movie buffs. They can be found in Ohio, Michigan, New Jersey, California, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire — and here in Dutchess County.

The Hyde Park Drive-In, continuously operated by members of Sidney Cohen’s family since its opening night on July 28, 1950, is the only screen located on land owned by the U.S. National Park Service. [It is one of two drive-ins in the county; the other being the Overlook in Poughkeepsie, which is also owned by the Cohen family.]

Sidney Cohen’s son-in-law, Barry Horowitz, and Barry’s wife, Carol, can be found most evenings from April through September at the Hyde Park ticket booth, welcoming visitors from near and far. This summer, Barry told the Observer, “We have had several visitors from Connecticut, New York City and England.”

He added, “The thing I love most about being here is seeing and welcoming people from many places, as well as friends from Dutchess County.”

From opening night in 1950, a glimpse of drive-in history. Bob Kampf / The Observer
From opening night in 1950, a glimpse of drive-in history. Bob Kampf / The Observer

In 1949, Cohen and his associate, Elliot Roosevelt, son of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, opened the indoor Roosevelt Theater with celebrity guests, including the actor Morey Amsterdam and Roosevelt’s wife, the actress Faye Emerson, onsite for the grand occasion. A year later, Roosevelt sold his interest to Cohen, who opened the drive-in—then an Auto Vision theater–the next year. Its first show featured Jimmy Stewart and Joan Fontaine in the romantic comedy “You Gotta Stay Happy,” along with a second feature, Zane Grey’s “Red Canyon,” with Ann Blyth and Howard Duff, which was shown in Technicolor.

In 1989, after a zoning tussle with the town, the Cohens sold the land to Scenic Hudson, but retained operation of the theater under contract with the environmental organization. Around 2011, Scenic Hudson then turned the ownership of the land over to the National Park Service, which was intent on expanding the Roosevelt Farm Lane Trail.

The Cohen family now rents the 29 acres occupied by the drive-in, keeping the cameras rolling seven days a week throughout the summer months.

“It’s tough to get good films after Labor Day,” said Horowitz, “and we need our silent partner, the weatherman, to cooperate with us every day!”

While the original capacity of 650 cars has been narrowed down by the inclusion of the entrance to the Farm Lane Trail, some 50-60 cars arrive most nights to enjoy current cinema fare, with a little more than an average of two persons per vehicle.

“We make a good portion of our income from food sales at the convenience counter,” Horowitz added, “but many families arrive with their own pizzas or sandwiches, which is just the way it is.”

As darkness set in one night last week, it was apparent that, while some things have changed at the drive-in, much is still the same.

Cars full of little children, stuffed animals, lawn chairs, blankets, and pizza, began arriving for the feature film, along with couples on dates and outdoor movie devotees.

One particular family arrived from Putnam Valley, Carlos and Andrea Pereira, and their two college-age daughters, who currently reside in Germany. “This is our first trip to this theater,” said Pereira, “because the girls are visiting from Berlin and had never gone to a drive-in, so this is our family night out.”

Interestingly enough, the family included a former actress, Joan Lorring, the mother of Andrea Sonnenberg Pereira, who earned a nomination for supporting actress, opposite Bette Davis in the 1946 movie, “The Corn Is Green.”

When told about the first movie ever shown at the Hyde Park Drive-In, Andrea Pereira asked, “Do you think they might have shown my mother’s movie with Bette Davis?”

Adults pay $9 to see the show, while children 5 to 11 are charged $6, except on Tuesday nights, “bargain night,” when all tickets go for $6. Rabid fans of the outdoor venue can purchase a book of 10 tickets for $70. A few years ago, the theater went to digital projection, eliminating the need for speakers to be attached to car windows. Today, the sound can be found on the accessory dial of a car radio, or a radio may be borrowed for a small deposit fee at the ticket booth.

While Horowitz said that he really enjoys seeing people at the drive-in, his wife, Carol, joked, “My favorite thing about the theater is being stuck in the ticket booth each night with Barry — and this is after 51 happy years of marriage!”

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