From the 1940s to the 1970s, Wacoans could enjoy the full spectrum of the cinematic experience from the comfort of their own cars at the Circle Drive-In Theatre. This theatre, named for Waco's nearby traffic circle, was one of hundreds of drive-in cinemas that popped up across the country during the 1940s. While movie houses featuring silent films had been around since the late nineteenth century, the first drive-in theater was patented in New Jersey in 1933—a full decade after sound technology debuted in short films. When the invention of personal car speakers in the early 1940s led others to duplicate the new innovation, the number of drive-ins in the United States subsequently skyrocketed. Built in 1946, Waco's Circle Drive-In was part of this postwar boom.
The theatre opened on Friday, June 21, 1946, with a showing of Columbia Picture's Technicolor production "The Bandit of Sherwood Forest." Although the Circle Drive-In was not Waco's first theatre of the sort, it quickly became one of the city's most popular. The theatre, designed by Dallas architect Jack Corgan, promised "absolutely the latest developments in modern drive-in theatre engineering, supplemented with all of the beauty of modern architectural genius." Moviegoers were not likely to be disappointed. The drive-in featured an extensive array of amenities that included in-car speakers with adjustable volume control, a well-stocked concession stand, and tiled restrooms. Additionally, each car ramp had been engineered to guarantee every car a prime and clear view of the screen, and had been paved to eliminate any dust that might obscure the audience's view. For patrons who experienced a flat tire, attendees waited nearby to fix the tire free of charge.
Outdoor cinemas became especially attractive to those looking for a family-friendly pastime, and the Circle Drive-In was no exception. The theatre provided a free bottle-warming service for mothers with infants so that the whole family could tag along. For children who had trouble sitting through a feature film, there was a full play park, complete with swings, a seesaw, and sandboxes. Between each film, the theatre also showed a selection of cartoons for youngsters in the audience.
Furthermore, the ability to view a film from the comfort of one's own car appealed to a wide variety of viewers. Moviegoers could come dressed as they wanted and even smoke without fear of clouding up an indoor theatre. The drive-in was hailed as "the answer to the prayers of the invalid and aged," as those with limited mobility could enjoy a film more easily than ever.
The Circle Drive-In's program, which changed four times weekly, offered a diverse selection of the latest films, ranging from westerns to romances to kiddie flicks. As technology continued to develop in the following decades, so did the drive-in. In-car heaters were added in the early 1950s, ensuring maximum comfort for viewers even in the colder months. The theatre also installed an "electro-aire system" in snack bars and restrooms in 1953 to rid the air of germs and prevent the spread of sickness and disease. While the technology was later proven to be largely ineffective, the installation was seen as an important effort in the wake of various epidemics.
In the 1960s, however, drive-in theatres began losing customers—and, therefore, revenue—to indoor theatres that were not restricted to nighttime hours and could offer a more extensive selection of viewing times. Indoor theatres also offered consistent air-conditioning and operated even in inclement weather. The development of the VCR in the 1970s took a further toll on drive-in theatres, as audiences could now view virtually any film of their choosing without leaving home. Finally, gas prices in the 1970s forced many families to purchase smaller cars that were more fuel efficient, but decidedly less comfortable for movie viewing. Given the massive decrease in family attendance, many outdoor cinemas—the Circle Drive-In included—began to feature slasher horrors and X-rated films almost exclusively. The vast majority of these theatres ultimately succumbed to financial pressure, opting to sell their properties as land prices rose in the wake of expanding suburbs. After years of steady decline, the Circle Drive-In closed its gates in 1980.
Currently, the theatre grounds are used to house a local flea market, which draws hundreds of visitors each week. Although the drive-in theatre is no longer in operation, the screen tower still stands off of Waco's LaSalle Avenue, the reminder of a bygone era in both cinema and society.