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Your Town, Texas: Granbury’s Old-School Drive-In Theater

by Jerome Weeks 19 Oct 2010 8:00 AM

There were nearly 400 drive-in theaters in Texas; now, there are fewer than 20. And Granbury’s Brazos Drive-In is up for sale.



As part of KERA’s series of reports on Your Town, Texas, this week we’re looking at Granbury, the small town known for the Granbury Opera House, its preserved courthouse square (below, left) and its new, sizable and decidedly upscale, retirement community. But KERA’s Jerome Weeks looks at another piece of history in town: The 58-year-old Brazos Drive-In movie theater is up for sale.

KERA radio story:

Expanded online version:

The heyday of the drive-in movie theater was half-a-century ago – Texas had nearly 400 of them. Now there are fewer than 20. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone to find a funky antique like the Brazos Drive-In in Granbury up for sale.

Except this Saturday night, the Brazos is selling tickets. It’s not acting like a dying business. Most of its 200 spaces are filling up with cars.

[ambient car sounds from drive-in entrance: “Good night for a movie, huh?”

“Yessir. Y’all have a great night.”

“ You do the same. Thank you.”]

Shelbie Miller is the daughter of Jennifer Miller. The Millers have owned the Brazos for 26 of its 58 years. But they’re not selling because it’s a fading venture.

Miller: “My mother put the drive-in up for sale because it’s just time to retire. She owns several other businesses and she’s selling them all.”

Miller says they haven’t received a serious offer because of the weak economy. But that also works to the Brazos’ favor – at the box office. Going to a drive-in can be a bargain. It’s 18 dollars for a carload – for two movies. For a family of four, that’s a cheap night out — two dollars per person, per movie.

Miller: “We haven’t really been affected by the recession except for gas prices. People coming from Dallas, they don’t really want to spend that much money on gas.”

The theater couldn’t survive just on business from Granbury. The town has only 8,000 people. So families driving from Dallas, Fort Worth, Garland – from all across Texas – have been the Brazos’ primary audience

April Villareal is from Carrolton.

April: “We thought we’d do a weekend getaway. Go to the little city beach, do the Granbury drive-in. Our kids — this is their first time. So we wanted to bring the kids out.”

Parents often bring their kids out of nostalgia [pre-show music plays: the 1962 pop hit, “Telstar“]. A trip to the drive-in can be a bit of cinematic entertainment and pop-culture history. It’s also a family picnic. Before the show starts – [ambient of kids playing and dogs barking] – children chase each other, illuminated by headlights. People bring their dogs and deck chairs.

Stephanie Malloy from Arlington visits with her family every summer.

Malloy: “Last year we came and our little one, she’s about two and she loves candy, and she was getting into our candy bag. And about 30 minutes into the movie, she threw up [laughter]. But we stayed – yeah, so that’s a fond memory right there.”

The Brazos attracts families, it’s family-owned – and family run. Brenda Stewart, the drive-in manager (right), has worked here for 15 years. Her 21-year-old son Michael is the guy selling tickets. They both pitch in at the concession stand — with its 50-year-old popcorn maker. [sound of popcorn]

Stewart: “His baseball coach was the manager here, and my son actually practiced baseball in front of the screen. And so they talked me into coming to work here. And I’ve quit twice [laughter] and was talked into coming back.”

Like a number of small towns that have gone into the quaint Texana business, Granbury has re-tooled itself as a tourism and retirement community. But because the Brazos doesn’t draw most of its customers from town, Miller thinks it isn’t fully appreciated as a little engine for tourism.

Miller: “The drive-in is a local icon. But I think when you live here you don’t really think about it as a treasure, you just take it for granted.”

For her own part, Stewart isn’t too worried about new owners.

Stewart: “Someone else will come in and have some new ideas, but I don’t see that it’ll change that much.”

Weeks: “What if someone wants to develop something here?”

Stewart: “They can’t.”

That’s right. Over the years, the Brazos’ battered, wood-beam-and-siding movie screen has been knocked down by windstorms — including just days before the cinema’s 50-year anniversary in 2002. But one thing that Granbury has done for the theater is designate that screen a landmark. Whoever the Brazos’ new owners might be, they won’t be able to knock it down.

It’s historic.

And still profitable.

[ambient of Stewart finishing her pre-show announcement: “And now it’s show time” – followed by the sound of the projector starting up]

  • Rhonda Stephens

    I am interested in the sale price. Could you please respond?

    Rhonda Stephens

  • Jerome Weeks

    I’ve passed along your request — and sent you their reply. Thanks.

  • Chrishart35

    I have a small group interested in purchasing the drive-in. Could you please send me some information? Thank you.