GATESVILLE — Gene Palmer was 15 when he started working at the Circle S Drive-In Theater in Gatesville, directing traffic and showing folks how to operate the speaker that hung inside the car window.
It was 1950. The Circle S had just opened. Harry Truman was president. The Korean War was starting.
Patti Page’s “Tennessee Waltz” topped the Billboard Chart. A new cartoon strip, Charles Shultz’s “Peanuts,” made its debut in seven U.S. newspapers.
The best team in the NFL was the Cleveland Browns.
Walt Disney’s animated film “Cinderella” made its debut. The most popular movie actor in America was John Wayne.
“John Wayne was always there,” Palmer said, “and Walt Disney.”
A lot has changed in the past 63 years, but the old Gatesville drive-in is still showing movies under the stars. Gene Palmer is still out there directing traffic.
The old days
There were four indoor movie theaters in Gatesville when the Circle S Drive-in opened, Palmer said. He worked at one of them before moving out to the drive-in.
Palmer worked for the Skelton brothers, Joe and Max, who operated theaters in Gatesville and Temple.
“They put me to work and turned me loose,” Palmer said. He learned the business from projection booth to popcorn popper.
When Palmer bought the drive-in from the Skeltons in 1964, only one indoor theater was left in town and it closed within the year. Anyone in the area who wanted to see a picture show drove out to the big screen on Texas Highway 36.
Palmer added an inside viewing area where youngsters could sit and watch the outdoor feature. He changed the name to the Town & Country Indoor & Outdoor Theater.
“We got a lot of dropped-off kids — 12, 13, 14 years old,” Palmer said. “We put in a screen room for kids. They can use their cellphones as long as they don’t get too rowdy.”
He added a 200-seat indoor theater adjacent to the drive-in in 1972.
“We need another indoor,” he said. “We’ll try to build another one next year.”
The drive-in is still packing in the crowds, Palmer said, with 1,500 to 2,000 movie-goers turning out on a good Saturday night.
All in the family
The drive-in is a family place. The four Palmer brothers worked at the show from year to year, and now Gene’s grandchildren manage the Gatesville drive-in.
The movie fare is family-oriented as well. Films shown indoors and out are rated G, PG with some select PG-13.
“We don’t show any R’s and we are pretty picky on the PG-13’s,” Palmer said. “If it is on the rough side, we just skip it.”
Families in pickup trucks pull into the drive-in on Saturday nights and the place looks like a yard party or family gathering with lawn chairs and ice chests.
“In the ’70s and ’80s, a lot of drive-ins turned to adult movies, but we just didn’t play them,” Palmer said. “When you’ve lost your family-movie business, you might as well close up.”
By the early 1990s, there weren’t many of the old drive-in movies still in business, but Gatesville’s drive-in never shut down.
There have been new drive-in theaters sprouting up, but Palmer’s place is one of the few originals still standing.
“As for the old ones, we’re about it,” Palmer said.
His theater is “the only drive-in open year-round in the world,” Palmer said.
“We are open every night except Christmas Eve.”
The family drive-in is the biggest entertainment draw for outsiders to Gatesville, Palmer said, attracting regular customers from Waco, Temple, Belton, Killeen, Copperas Cove and Hamilton.
In the 1990s, drive-in manager Dana Palmer, Gene’s grandson, paraphrased a Larry McMurtry book title when he changed the name to reflect the theater’s longevity. It is now called The Last Drive-In Picture Show.