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HISTORIC HAPPENINGS - June 2009

Demise of the Drive-In
by Vicki Barker

“Nightmare at Noon” was more than a dud movie shot in Moab. It was a nightmare in Joyce Victor’s backyard the night before her step-daughter’s wedding.

One of the films shot in Moab in the late ‘80s, the low-budget production was one of the most memorable that used Victor’s old drive-in theater property on Mill Creek Drive for a location shot. For the scene, a van wired with dynamite exploded in the dark, creating a huge rumble and fireball that literally shook Victor’s house, destroyed her swimming pool, and sent burning debris whooshing all the way to the Power Dam.

Drive-in movie theatre in Moab
Grand-Vu Drive-in photo courtesy of ViviAnn Rose

“They blew it up in front of the snack bar. It blew out all the windows of the snack bar,” recalled Victor, who owned the drive-in and lives in a house built next to it. “I had a houseful of visitors, and a fireball went through our house and then dissipated. Everybody in the house felt it. The force of the fireball dropped the bottom of my swimming pool. It was Laurie Victor’s wedding the next day, and the water was gone!”

Needless to say, the production cost more than anticipated, due to damages. An apologetic company and local crew explained that the stunt coordinator who’d wired the dynamite “thought it would take more than it did,” Victor said. Fortunately, the wedding ceremony had been planned at Charlie Steen’s historic MiVida mansion on the hill in northeast Moab. While post-wedding festivities in Victor’s backyard did not include a refreshing dip in the pool, the incident lent drama to the occasion, and eventually the pool was repaired.

That nightmare at the Grand-Vu Drive-In preceded the last gasp of the outdoor theater some 20 years later. In the summer of 2008, all remnants of the most popular Atomic Era entertainment center in town were demolished to make way for condominiums -- one of which is reserved for Victor, a retired school teacher in her 70s. The first unit of a series of planned condos in the “Haciendas” complex, being developed by new owners in Arizona, is almost complete. Next to Mill Creek Drive, the adobe-style structure looms large where the old sixties-style Grand-Vu marquee once stood.

Victor sold the drive-in property last year, then watched with sadness as the old, peeling outdoor screen was brought tumbling to the ground in a huge cloud of red dust. Losing the screen from her backyard view has felt to her like losing an arm or leg that is replaced by a prosthesis. “It was just like, from the minute I moved to Moab, that was there in my backyard, and I still glance over and look to see it. It’s like an artifical limb -- you can still feel it.”

When the screen came down, Victor fielded dozens of phone calls from people wanting to know why she hadn’t announced it was going to be destroyed. She said the screen was already suffering a “terrible demise” because windstorms were tearing it to pieces. She said people were quite emotional and some expressed dismay at the lost opportunity for photographs, retrieving pieces of the screen or other physical remnants, and that the marquee was not salvaged. People who are only now noticing the screen is gone are still expressing feelings about it, she said.

For Victor, the biggest regret of her days running the drive-in was its closing in 1978. “It was like an institution, like a part of the valley. That was all there was in this town -- the only form of entertainment,” she said. “We closed it in 1978 because that’s when TV hit Moab, and Cinemax killed us. Moab had two movie stations, and Cinemax carried all the films.”

The Grand-Vu was opened in the early 1950s by Howard and Ireta Lance and bought by Victor’s first husband Tom Ossanna’s parents, Bob and Helen Ossanna, in 1953. They had owned the Strand Theater in Helper, and literally brought the projectionist, Chas Weller, with them to Moab to work at the Grand-Vu.

Tom Ossanna brought his new wife Joyce from Tooele to Moab in 1958 to help run the drive-in. “I worked the snack bar, and oft-times he worked the ticket office,” she recalled. After they divorced and Joyce married Glen Victor, she continued helping Helen Ossanna at the drive-in, and in 1970 the Victors bought the property.

In its heyday, the drive-in accommodated 250 vehicles -- many of them trucks with open beds filled with bedding, edibles and children in pajamas. Tickets -- 25-cents for children and 50-cents for adults -- were dispensed from both sides of the entry shack, and at least once -- when Walt Disney’s “Old Yeller” came to town -- cars were backed up in both lanes of Mill Creek all the way to the old K-D’s (Emmett’s) second-hand store near the bridge. “With ‘Old Yeller,’ they’d park all down the sides and way up front…and they just kept coming. We were flabberghasted,” Victor recalled. Families refused to be turned away, so the theater improvised by wiring up huge speakers to the system so that the overflow audience could at least hear something.

Disney movies were always big draws, but “Old Yeller” beat out all other “Walt Disney’s,” Victor said. “I personally helped pop 1,500 bags of popcorn for ‘Old Yeller.’”

Of course, audiences loved westerns, especially those filmed in the area, and those starring John Wayne brought out the whole town, including the Duke himself, Victor said. Moab theater-goers frequently shared star-studded drive-in nights with movie stars in town for filming and didn’t know it -- including Henry Fonda and, in particular, Richard Widmark.

“Richard Widmark came to the show every single night. The same show over and over again. The next night, again,” Victor marveled. “He said he really enjoyed our drive-in, because we used to have shooting stars. People would make beds in the back of their trucks, and I’d be walking the ramps and hear: “There’s another one!’”

She also remembers children in every vehicle singing along with the Orange Crush jingle before the feature film began. Families loved the drink, which came in containers shaped like an orange, with a straw. “And everyone loved the Roll O’ Grill hot dogs, and the Castlebury barbeque, and the delicious hot popcorn.”

And of course, high schoolers in particular loved the opportunity for love at the drive-in.

The Grand-Vu Drive-In operated through the end of November, and many movie-goers remember all those steamed-up windows in cars where movie-watching obviously wasn’t the focal activity of the occupants.

 
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