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Advertisement from The Seattle Times, Friday, September 27, 1968.

The holiday season has begun, and November’s soggy weather inspires many to head to the movies with visiting relatives, ready to take in the latest blockbuster films.

In this post, we look at records from the archives that document perceptions of a once-popular venue, the drive-in theater.

Communities facing change

Records of land use applications, hearings, and appeals can provide a view of individuals and communities responding to growth and change. The King County Commissioners’ zoning files, dating from the 1950s and 1960s, document the public response to several proposed developments, including a golf course, an air strip, and a drive-in theater.

A quiet life

The rezone file that documents approval of a drive-in theater includes snapshots of the affected rural neighborhood, with its modest homes, small businesses, a trailer park, and a nursery.

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[Views of neighborhood around 86th Avenue South and the East Valley Highway, 1965. The first set of photos above was taken using a Polaroid camera, the second is on Kodak paper.]

 

In my back yard?

In 1965 when a new drive-in theater was proposed for this community, local residents objected. Petitions and letters expressed concern over traffic, diminished property values, noise, light, and litter that the theater might bring.

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One letter to County Commissioners recognized that new businesses would inevitably come to the neighborhood — just off the East Valley Highway between Kent and Auburn — but warned that a drive-in might define the area’s character and limit the type of commercial growth.

Moral character

Along with practical concerns came strong moral objection to the movies themselves and worry over their potential negative influence on local children and youth.  Some lamented that drive-ins had changed from being family-oriented venues to showing “unwholesome” films to an “unwholesome” audience.

Reports of alcohol consumption, fighting, and young couples behaving inappropriately at existing area drive-ins added to the concern.

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The Kent Police Chief responded that behavior at drive-ins was manageable.

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Planning and growth

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The Planning Department’s logo represented a balance of industrial, agricultural, business, and residential uses, connected by highways and roads, seemingly pulled into an asymmetrical shape by the natural form of a waterway.

Facilitating development while maintaining quality of life is the perpetual challenge for local planners. And, in spite of the residents’ objections and appeal, the department recommended approval of the rezone.

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[Sketch of the proposed theater as it would appear from the road.]

The Valley Drive-In

The Valley Drive-In opened in 1966 and became a popular destination, expanding over time from a single, sixty-foot-high screen, to a six-screen multiplex.  It outlasted other drive-in theaters in King County, staying in business until 2012. Feliks Banel’s article from May of this year, “Auburn’s abandoned Valley Drive-In is a spooky ‘graveyard‘” provides a nostalgic view of the theater and drive-ins generally.

While researchers at the Archives most frequently use land use and zoning records to answer a specific technical or legal question, the records also document how neighborhoods change over time and how people respond to that change. The records of this rezone show a small community’s assertion of its values, which they felt were threatened by a new venue that might allow uncontrolled behavior and exposure to what were regarded as negative social influences. Parents today, concerned over youth’s access to the unlimited content of the Internet and unsupervised time, might relate to these fears. As with many archival records, this zoning file reminds us that what seem like new issues might in fact be perennial themes, reemerging in new forms.


Sources

King County Commissioners’ Zoning Files, Series 129 (129.20.2) (1965).

Valley Drive-In advertiesement from The Seattle Times, Friday, September 27, 1968, page 31.

“Fifty years: Adapting to change keeps drive-ins alive,” The Seattle Times, Sunday, June 5, 1983, page G-1.

“Auburn’s abandoned Valley Drive-In is a spooky ‘graveyard’,” MyNorthwest.com, May 12, 2016, (http://mynorthwest.com/291115/auburns-abandoned-valley-drive-in-spooky-graveyard)