Part of a continuing weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.
As theater chains across the nation again shut their doors, it is worth remembering that there was once a socially distant alternative. Drive-in theaters allowed individuals, groups of friends, and families to watch movies outside but within the relative comfort of their car. The screens were sometimes small, and the individual speakers usually offered terrible sound quality. Still, for generations of Americans, drive-in theaters provided treasured memories.
The catch with a dream scenario like this for Anchorage is that the drive-ins have to exist in Anchorage. Short summers with long days and long winters with short days make this city an unlikely place to invest in an industry best suited for darkness and comfortable weather. Yet, during a narrow, 15-year window, three drive-in theaters opened and closed in town.
The first drive-in theater in Anchorage was the Billiken, opened by Ed and Marie Hanby in September 1963 at the southern end of Muldoon Road, where the Regal Totem is today. The Hanbys named the Billiken after the popular good luck charm, a fat-bellied, smiling figure that was then an Alaska gift shop staple.
The first films shown were the 1957 “Jet Pilot,” starring John Wayne as the titular hero, and the 1961 “Blue Hawaii,” an Elvis Presley vehicle. These movies were the typical drive-in fare: broad, easily understood or laughed-at concepts. Wayne himself described “Jet Pilot” as “too stupid for words.” Original Billiken projectionist Ed Sharp recalls, “You would have called us a B-movie house if we had a roof.”
Trained projectionists were key movie theater employees in the days before automation and digital projectors. The average movie broke down into six film reels. The Billiken had two projectors, and the projectionist had to seamlessly switch between reels via a foot pedal. A short pause between reels caused boos. Longer breaks made people angry. Sharp notes, “you had to have a human being in that room.”
The Billiken employees were young, mostly Air Force and Army men working second jobs; Sharp was an Air Force pharmacy technician. With these multiple bonds, there was a sense of family. When the Good Friday earthquake of 1964 struck, the crew made their way to the drive-in. Both projectors had fallen over, and wires were down, but the place was intact and secure. The entire staff bedded down that night inside the concession stand. “That’s the night the drive-in was dark,” says Sharp.
At first, most of the material shown at the Billiken was family fare. Cartoons were crowd favorites, sometimes from reels cut together by Sharp. However, the theater began trending towards more risqué material. For their first Christmas Day matinee, the theater showed the 1959 film “A Summer Place,” described by the New York Times as “garishly sex scented,” and the 1963′s “Operation Bikini,” which mixed war scenes with shots of young ladies frolicking on the beach in bikinis. While those two films are laughably tame by modern standards, the theater began to run outright adult films as the decade progressed.
As the 1960s progressed, Ed Hanby was increasingly unable to obtain copies of quality movies for the Billiken. He believed the Lathrop Company, which then controlled all the other first-run movie theaters in Anchorage, conspired with film distributors to block the Billiken’s access to better movies. The Billiken was left with the “lousy, old pictures that nobody else wants,” per Hanby.
In 1966, the Lathrop Company opened a direct competitor with the Sundowner Drive-In Theatre, off Seward Highway at Fireweed Lane. In addition to its more central location, the Sundowner offered free car heaters and windshield washing. The Billiken charged 50 cents to rent a heater. However, mosquitoes were a significant problem at the Sundowner given the nearby Chester Creek.
The Sundowner opened on March 24, 1966, next to the indoor Fireweed Cinema 7. The first double-bill began with the 1965 “Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine,” a comedy starring Frankie Avalon and Vincent Price. The second film was the 1966 “Big T.N.T. Machine,” a concert film featuring Ray Charles, Petula Clark, The Byrds, Ike and Tina Turner, Joan Baez, and others.
In 1967, Ed Hanby filed an anti-trust lawsuit against the Lathrop Company and eight film distributors. While that suit slowly made its way through the court system, Hanby himself became a legal target. On Oct. 10, 1969, Alaska State Troopers confiscated two adult movies from the Billiken, “The Pleasure Machines” and “Love Camp 7.” The troopers claimed the films contained “scenes which glorify lustful conduct and human brutality.” Hanby was convicted on five counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
The case against Hanby was problematic. The warrant that lead to the seizure noted no evidence for the Troopers' claims. Nor is there a legal standard for “lust” and “brutality.” And the Alaska Supreme Court did not react kindly to the state’s alternative argument that a warrant was unnecessary for private property seizure. In December 1970, the Alaska Supreme Court dismissed Hanby’s conviction and ordered the movies' return.
The anti-trust lawsuit against the Lathrop Company was dismissed in 1971 for want of prosecution. By then, the Hanbys had grown less enamored with Alaska. Wometco, a holding company out of Florida, bought Lathrop in 1969. In January 1973, the Hanbys sold the Billiken to Wometco Lathrop and left the state.
Shortly before the Hanbys left Alaska, a new variation of the drive-in theater arrived in Anchorage. Cinema 360 opened on Aug. 23, 1972, located at Seward Highway and Huffman Road. Their first film was the 1970 romantic tragedy “Love Story,” starring Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw.
Rather than the traditional parking lot layout of other drive-in theaters, Cinema 360 arranged cars in a circle facing outwards. Each vehicle parked in front of individual back-projected screens with the sound played over an AM radio station. Restrooms and concessions were in the middle of the circle. If you parked slightly off-center from the screen, the image would blur. The experiment was a dismal failure. Cinema 360 closed in late 1973, just over a year after opening. The site is now a Carrs grocery store.
Both the Billiken and Sundowner theaters opened with the stated intention of year-round showings with cancellations for only the most inclement winter weather. However, they soon adapted to the reality of Anchorage winters. The small heaters provided by the theaters were often insufficient to the task. And if a patron started their car to warm the interior, the exhaust clouds impaired the view of those parked farther back. By the 1970s, both theaters closed in January and reopened in March or April.
All the Anchorage drive-in theaters struggled financially. By the summer of 1964, the Billiken was offering warmup acts, teen dances, and concerts to fill the time before movies. Occasionally, there were fireworks. The Sundowner frequently staged concerts, including a memorable June 2, 1974, Kiss show.
Kiss was still a relatively unknown band at this time, with their first gig only a year prior. By the summer of 1974, their debut album was selling poorly, though they were garnering some buzz for their unique stage show. They also weren’t the headliner in Anchorage, instead opening for Savoy Brown, a blues inspired rock band from England. In his Anchorage Daily News column, Spenard fixture Mr. Whitekeys described Kiss as “deafening without any redeeming musical value” and yearned for more talented musicians. He also criticized their choice of leotards.
The Billiken limped along its new management through 1976, when it was closed in favor of building the new Totem theater. The Sundowner closed for good in January 1979. The last feature film shown was the musical “Grease.”
From John Wayne to John Travolta, the Anchorage era of the drive-movie was brief but memorable. Those locals that grew up during this time will never forget the experience. Those that grew up or arrived later will have a hard time imagining this era ever happened.
The author gives special thanks to Air Force and Billiken Drive-in veteran Ed Sharp for his participation.
Campbell, Larry. “Drive-In Days.” Anchorage Daily News, February 6, 1994, J-1, J-2, J-3.
“Chief Reviews New Theater.” Anchorage Daily Times, September 4, 1976, 8.
Donohue, Brian. “Stranded Without a Drive-In.” Anchorage Times, June 24, 1988, D1.
“Drive-in Has Personal Screens.” Anchorage Daily News, August 7, 1972, 2A.
“Drive-ins Pose Problems in Both Summer and Winter.” Anchorage Daily News, August 20, 1979, D-4.
Edward Hanby v. State of Alaska. 479 P.2d 486, Supreme Court of Alaska, 1970.
“Film Dispute Boiling Here; Suit Pending.” Anchorage Daily Times, August 4, 1967, 1.
“Lathrop Company Opens New Drive-In.” Anchorage Daily Times, March 23, 1966, 13.
Mr. Whitekeys. “Mr. Whitekey’s Column.” Anchorage Daily News, June 9, 1974, B-7.
Munn, Michael. John Wayne: The Man Behind the Myth. London: Robson, 2004.
“Now Open Billiken Drive-In Theatre.” Anchorage Daily Times, September 7, 1963, 8.
Sharp, Ed. Phone conversation with author, October 2, 2020.
Thompson, Howard. “Summer Place Opens.” New York Times, October 23, 1959, 24.
[Because of a high volume of comments requiring moderation, we are temporarily disabling comments on many of our articles so editors can focus on the coronavirus crisis and other coverage. We invite you to write a letter to the editor or reach out directly if you’d like to communicate with us about a particular article. Thanks.]