MULTICOLORED MULES? — In 1951, the Normandy Twin Outdoor Theater looked like a couple of fans stuck together. Cars would park on each side of the double screens in the middle, and two movies played at once.
Fifty years ago, people saw drive-in theaters as romantic, exciting, and offbeat. Indeed, the Normandy billed itself as “The South’s Finest & Largest Outdoor Theatre.” “Don’t bother to dress,” it boasted, “Come as you are.” Dad would have “no parking worries,” while mom could be her “own baby sitter.” With no extra charge, the kids could enjoy train rides, burro rides, and a complete playground with attendants.
But it was the “Technicolor Mules” that really stood out. What a publicity stunt! They are recalled by a former Jax resident, who is a Miami businessman now. He romped around the drive-in as a youngster: “My family’s time at the Normandy was in the late 1950’s. As I remember, there was a pen just past the entrance that contained the mules. The animals were various colors, such as yellow, red, orange, green and blue. It was more a tint than an actual paint. You couldn’t ride them, but my sister and I petted them. They were gone by the time we left Jax in 1961. Yes, I fondly remember the theatre. Being able to go around by ourselves and such. I don’t quite remember what we had, except for popcorn and Ju-Ju Beans. The movies? ‘The Ten Commandments,’ ‘Thunder Road,’ and ‘Chartroose Caboose.’ Oh, yes, ‘Godzilla’ and ‘Rodan’ too. My family didn’t have much (we were Navy), and our idea of fun was piling in the ’53 Nash and going to the show.”
Drive-ins were entering their heyday. In 1956, Jacksonville could boast of eleven outdoor theaters. After World War II ended in 1945, America experienced an automobile boom, with many consumers buying large, roomy vehicles. At drive-in theaters, big backseats provided a play area for kids and a passion pit for sweethearts. Almost every drive-in offered a concession stand, but some outdoor theaters also featured monkeys, pony rides, miniature golf, swimming pools, monorails, and motor boats on custom-built lakes.
THE DRIVE-INS GO DARK — Not even all of this, however, could save the day — or night — for drive-ins. By the 1960s, outdoor theaters had begun to lessen in popularity. The reasons included competition from TV, a decrease in the number of teens as baby boomers got older, a “lengthening” of days due to daylight saving time, and the growth of cities that gobbled up surrounding land. In the Sunshine Site, over 90% of the drive-ins have gone dark. These included the Normandy Theatre.
The Normandy drive-in was replaced by the Normandy Mall Shopping Center during the early 1960s. According to the Florida Times-Union in 1963, the upcoming mall would employ “the newest concepts in suburban shopping facilities.” Like most other drive-ins, the Normandy Outdoor Theatre had once lay near the edge of town. In this location, its owners could purchase land for less money, didn’t have to pay high property taxes, and didn’t have to contend with much glare from surrounding lights. In the early ’50s, few businesses had lined Normandy Boulevard. This had changed rather significantly by the early ’60s.
Along Normandy Boulevard today, there is non-stop retail development between the old drive-in site and Interstate 295, about 2 1/2 miles to the west. The Normandy Mall sits mostly empty & boarded up. Many nearby businesses, though, seem to do well. This includes a Winn Dixie shopping center that is situated on part of the old drive-in site. What else will be built at this location remains to be seen.
A milestone was reached in 1986, when the lights finally went off at the Fox Drive-in on Normandy Boulevard, on the Westside. It was the last of Jacksonville’s outdoor theaters to play general features, that is, mainstream movies. Still in operation was the Playtime Drive-in, located on Blanding Boulevard, also on the Westside. It used to run only adult films, but times changed. Eventually, the Playtime ran first-run flicks that weren’t X-rated. Playtime, the last remaining drive-in in Jacksonville, closed in May 2008. There are only six drive-ins still operating in Florida.
~written by Glenn Emery