What Used to be There? Forty-one Drive-in

Tuesday, June 26, 2007 - by Harmon Jolley
Opening weekend show listing for the Forty-one Drive-in.  Click to enlarge.
Opening weekend show listing for the Forty-one Drive-in. Click to enlarge.

In response to a more mobile society, drive-in theaters opened at a rapid rate following World War II. With acreage as an important part of the investment, drive-ins often were located on the perimeters of cities where land was cheap. However, when the popularity of drive-ins began to diminish, the land was soon eyed by developers.

Locally, after being blown down by a wind storm, the Skyway Drive-in on Brainerd Road was redeveloped as Eastgate Mall. The Marbro is now the site of Sam’s Club on Lee Highway. Other drive-ins had similar fates of being converted into other commercial uses.

One “ozoner,” the Forty-one Drive-in Theater, had a different sort of last picture show. If you stand on Fincher Avenue off Ringgold Road, and look towards the East Ridge interchange of Interstate 75, you will be looking at the old theater property. The Forty-one Drive-in’s rise and fall were both due to the automobile.

The Forty-one Drive-in opened on Friday, May 6, 1949. According to the drive-in tribute Web site Cinema Treasures (http://cinematreasures.org/theater/15339/), the theater was built by W.H. Fincher. I could not validate that information at the library. However, this may be connected to the name of Fincher Avenue which bordered the theater property.

The parking lot of the Forty-one could hold up to 600 cars. That’s a lot of potential popcorn profits, but it was a smaller venue than the nearby Skyway, which could park at least 1,040 automobiles. The Forty-one Drive-in’s location was conveniently located to the growing suburbs of East Ridge and Brainerd. All of the traffic between Nashville and Atlanta traveled along Ringgold Road, so tourists might also be numbered among the customers.

To get to the drive-in, a car was a prerequisite. For an unobstructed view of the screen, one could buy a 76C Buick Roadmaster convertible for $3,465.95 at McKinney Buick at 1225 Broad Street. To cash in on the theater promotion of a flat price per carload, one could purchase the “most roomy” Hudson at Austin Motors at 1900 Broad Street. To keep the old flivver maintained, Newton Chevrolet sold a new engine at their dealership at 329 Market Street, while Western Auto sold seat covers for $14.95. Vortex Gas at 415 East Main Street offered a nickel-a-gallon discount if you pumped the gasoline yourself.

A full-page advertisement for the Forty-one ran in the Chattanooga Times during opening week. The theater featured the technology of RCA individual In-a-Car speakers. Like most drive-ins, the Forty-one probably lost some of those each year by people forgetting to remove them when exiting the theater. The Forty-one Drive-in also proclaimed in its advertisement that its machines were operated by union projectionists.

Opening week movies in May, 1949 were as follows, with plots that I summarized from various Internet sources:


James Craig, the El Paso Kid, is torn between helping a widow and joining up with bank robbers. I wonder if there was a new schoolmarm or U.S. Marshal; there usually was in a Western. Typical of many drive-ins, the Forty-one showed second-run movies. “The Man from Texas” was from 1948.

A romantic adventure film, also from 1948, starred Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake in a plot that involved aviators taking on a job for a war profiteer.

The Forty-one Drive-in dropped back to 1947 for this film starring Rory Calhoun. The plot involves a crew that is shipwrecked on an island ruled by the evil character played by Alan Napier (“Batman” TV show’s butler). Sort of “Gilligan’s Island” meets “Batman.”

This one from 1948, really does have a schoolmarm in it. The teacher gets a chance to pursue her dream of becoming a commercial artist for children’s books, only to find that the author is a lush who hates children. June Allyson, Van Johnson, and Hume Cronyn were among the stars.

The clock was turned back to 1946 for this film. A returning soldier played by Ken Curtis (“Gunsmoke’s Festus Haggen) has been planning to convert a radio station that he owned into a television station. However, he learns that his father has squandered his money, so the ex-G.I. has to hold an auction/hoedown to raise funds. Later, he could have called on Marshal Matt Dillon for help. “You betcha, Matthew.”

The Forty-one Drive-in Theater continued to attract customers during the halcyon years for drive-ins, the 1950’s. However, the date of June 29, 1956 portended doom for the theater. That day, the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, also known as the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act, was signed into law by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

On April 3, 1959, the Chattanooga Times reported the beginnings of the freeway project in Brainerd. A home at 321 South Moore Road was the first east of Missionary Ridge to be razed. The “directional interchange” of I-24 and I-75 was estimated to cost $3.3 million.

The Forty-one Drive-in Theater was in the pathway of the East Ridge interchange of Interstate 75. The theater continued to operate while freeway construction took place. However, by November 2, 1959, the theater’s advertisement noted a limited Friday/Saturday/Sunday schedule due to road construction.

The weekend showing of “John Paul Jones” on November 6, 1959 may have been the swan song of the old Forty-one. The next weekend’s theater listings included a comment for the Forty-one of “closed for the winter.”

It has been a long winter, indeed. The Chattanooga Times of June 6, 1960 included a photograph of the abandoned drive-in alongside the progress of the freeway.

On those mornings when we hear of yet another wreck at the I-75/I-24 directional interchange, how many of us wish that we still had the Forty-one Drive-in Theater instead of freeways.

If you have memories of the Forty-one Drive-in Theater, please send me an e-mail at jolleyh@bellsouth.net.

1950's map of Chattanooga showed locations of drive-in theaters, including the Forty-one.  Note the absence of I-75.  Click to enlarge.
1950's map of Chattanooga showed locations of drive-in theaters, including the Forty-one. Note the absence of I-75. Click to enlarge.

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