Y&W Drive In [Merrillville]
Description: Former Drive In Movie Theater Location: 6600 South Broadway, Merrillville, IN Condition: Closed and Deteriorating Originally Photographed: July 2001
Time was that going to the movies was even simpler than it is today – once you parked, you didn’t even have to get out of the car. Drive-in theaters in general have seen better times, and so has this one.
In June of 1933, Richard Hollingshead’s grand dream opened in Camden, New Jersey. Over the previous few years he had tried out various ideas on his friends and slowly developed what would become the drive-in theater. At one point he actually nailed a makeshift screen to a tree and balanced a projector on his car to decide what times of day and from what angles a screen could be seen outdoors.
Richard’s idea slowly gained popularity, but in the late 1940’s the phenomenon exploded across the American landscape. Fueled by new cars and wallets full of post-war expendable income, soon it seemed wasn’t a town or county without one.
In this environment, competition was fierce; operators were always seeking to one-up their nearest rival. Simple concession stands gave way to roving bands of carhops, which gave way to huge rolling “buffeterias” loaded with hot dogs, popcorn and cheese sauce. Small playgrounds opened for the children, which led to miniature golf courses and then to ride carnivals steps away from the family wagon. Many theaters turned into family entertainment complexes. In Indiana, the theater count swelled from none in 1940 to over 120 in 1958 – more than 1 per county.
Unfortunately, it didn’t last. First, air-conditioned theaters drew customers from those hot parking lots. Next, televisions started competing for free time, especially as the programming improved. Improvements in movie sound quality didn’t translate well to the small speakers in the car and VCR’s and cable TV brought movies into the home. The last blow was competing uses for the large tracts of land as the inner-ring of suburbs close to large cities began to run out of space. To this day, many of the drive-in theaters that close do so because a developer seeking to build a new shopping center or apartment building makes an offer too good to resist.
The Y&W Drive In, also known as the Lowes Y&W and the Sony Y&W sits on a very busy stretch of South Broadway in the middle of Merrillville, IN. Merrillville and its next-door neighbor, Hobart, became a tony destination for those fleeing Gary in the middle 1960’s during the height of suburban sprawl. The giant Southlake Mall on US 30 (part of the old Lincoln Highway ) near I-65 became the trendy place to spend time, and the traffic patterns out of Gary lead one right past the Y&W. No doubt it was a great place to spend the evening for any family living in Northwest Indiana.
The theater closed only a few years ago, which means that most its buildings are in good shape. However, the site is not secured in any way – one can drive right off-Broadway and into any one of the three theater areas.
The facility is on the west side of Broadway. One enters the property by driving past the north side of the sign. The road curves immediately south and then to the west again, where a ticket booth gate stops you. The booths themselves are simple wooden structures, but looking inside them reveals beautiful block glass ticket windows. Workers might have built the wooden walls hiding them at a later date.
Just past the ticket booth is a huge sign that indicates those going to “Y&W 1” should stay to the right, and those going to “Y&W 2 & 3” should stay left. The left hand road continues along the south side of the property, turning north along the west side of the property, to deliver cars to the front of the theater parking areas for screens 2 and 3. A quick right turn for those going to theater 1 deposits you at the front of that area.
Theater 1 is clearly the largest, and has both the largest concession stand as well as the remnants of what once was a playground area. Theater 3 is in the most disrepair – the weeds here are higher and the screen’s white paint has severely peeled away, indicating the owners probably shuttered it first and continued to use the other two for a time.
A board is missing from a window on the front of the concession stand, allowing one to look inside but not to enter. The concession area was clearly a major operation with several simultaneous serving lines and restrooms in the back. There is a small porch area with iron railings which obviously served as an outdoor dining patio at one time. Theater area 2 shares the building.
The playground area is the most interesting of all. Except for a series of small, curious huts and the remains of a swing set, nothing remains except overgrown hedges, stumps of long-missing figurines, and parts of a carousel.
The gigantic sign is truly a masterpiece of roadside architecture. It is in very good condition considering its probable age. One can only imagine the scene when this steel monster was lit up at night – you would not be able to miss it for a mile in either direction.
Y&W is a good reflection of the current state of so many drive-in theaters. Some continue to see success, but many owners scrape by season to season, deferring needed repairs and holding the operation together for the love of the business.
Will all drive-ins slip into the ranks of Lost Indiana? When was the last time you took your family to one?