Outdoor drive-in theaters were very popular throughout the country in the mid-1900s. Residents of the Merrimack Valley had several to choose from on any given night during the warmer months. There was the Den Rock in North Andover, Ole Rock in Salem, N.H., and the Riverview in Haverhill. In Methuen, there was E.M. Lowe’s Merrimack Park Drive-In Theater along the Merrimack River at 596 Lowell St.

The country’s first “auto theater” was built in 1933 in Camden, N.J. Methuen’s outdoor theater, built in 1938, was the country’s fourteenth and the fourth in Massachusetts. Owner and manager George Swartz of Boston originally planned to build the theater on the grounds of the recently closed Merrimack Amusement Park about a mile further up on Lowell Boulevard. He scrapped that idea in favor of the Lawrence Cricket and Athletic Association grounds on Lowell Street. But he still named it the Merrimack Park Auto Theater.

According to the Methuen Transcript, George Swartz was widely known in theater circles as a pioneer in movie operation. His partner, Joe Cifre, was one of the leading theatrical engineers in the East. The estimated construction cost for the new theater was between $40,000 and $45,000.

Newspapers claimed that the theater’s 40-by-60-foot screen was the largest of any outdoor theater in the country. A single loudspeaker by the screen provided the sound. There was parking for 700 to 800 vehicles and the owners boasted that everyone, no matter where they sat in the car, could comfortably watch the “talkies through the windshield.”

Merrimack Park Auto Theater opened in July 1938 to a capacity crowd. Uniformed guides helped direct traffic and assist with parking. The theater quickly became a popular attraction.

The July 30, 1938 issue of Boxoffice magazine mentioned the theater’s opening. The article quoted Joe Cifre’s description of the new facility as “something new under the moon.” He also promoted its location along the river as an escape from the summer heat by stating that “a large body of water is nature’s greatest air conditioner.” No mention of pesky mosquitos, though.

In September, the theater ran a month-long promotional raffle for a new 1938 Plymouth sedan. Everyone attending the theater during that period was given a free ticket for a chance to win the car. It was the highlight of the theater’s inaugural season. The drawing was held Monday, Sept. 20. However, less than 24 hours later, the theater literally came crashing down in the wake of the deadly and destructive Great Hurricane of 1938.

Weather forecasting in those days was rather primitive and most people were unaware of the intensity of the immense storm racing up the eastern coast. In Methuen, several men were working on the theater grounds when the hurricane struck late that afternoon. Heavy winds toppled the large movie screen, trapping three workers under the rubble. Methuen Fire Department crews worked for several hours to free the badly injured men. One of the victims, Louis Piantigini of Lawrence, suffered punctured lungs, broken ribs and a fractured femur.

Doctors at the hospital didn’t expect him to live. He did recover, but he was left permanently disabled. Louis was the grandfather of two future Methuen firefighters, Robert and John Piantigini.

The theater’s promising first season was over after a run of only a few months. It didn’t reopen in 1939, either.

In 1940, Elias M. Loew of Milton, Mass., purchased the property. He later became the largest theater owner in New England with 70 indoor theaters and 17 drive-ins. He was, however, not related to noted movie theater mogul Marcus Loew from New York who founded Loew’s Theaters and MGM Studios earlier in the century.

Elias Loew had a new screen erected at the Methuen location that summer. The rebuilt and renamed E.M. Loew’s Merrimack Park Drive-In Theater opened in August with double features nightly.

Soon after the drive-in reopened, neighbors began complaining to the town’s selectmen about the noise coming from the theater’s loudspeaker late into the evening. Shortly after, the owners outfitted the park with 300 individual “sound horns” that could be attached to each vehicle.

The outdoor drive-in theater industry boomed in the 1950s as automobile ownership in the U.S. skyrocketed. At the peak of its popularity in 1958, there were over 4,000 drive-ins throughout the country. Massachusetts had 86.

Drive-ins were popular as an inexpensive and fun form of entertainment for the family. Parents with pajama-clad children could spend an evening outdoors enjoying popular movies on a large screen from the comfort of their car. Drive-ins were also very popular with teenagers – and some adults – for a cheap date.

Movie theaters to this day rely on profits from the concession stand. Drive-in moviegoers were urged during the movie previews, intermission and just before the end of the last movie to visit the snack bar for delicious treats. Among the wide variety of food and drink offerings at Merrimack Park was Royal Feast potato chips, made a short distance away on Lowell Street.

A few of the theater’s local managers over the years were Frank S. Giles Jr., Norman McLeod, Otis E. Baker, William F. Hutton and his son, Arthur F. Hutton.

Attendance at drive-ins across the country began to decline in the 1960s. Many homes had televisions by then, providing people with free movies and other entertainment in the comfort of their living rooms. The growth of cable television services with movie channels like HBO, coupled with the emergence of video cassette players and a vast selection of VHS movie options in the 1970s and 1980s, put many drive-ins out of business.

For those people who still enjoyed watching the latest movies on the big screen, modern multi-plex indoor cinemas offered first-run movies with comfortable stadium-style seating, air-conditioning and high-quality sound. Meanwhile, many of the remaining independent drive-ins were showing older movies and low-budget B films. By 1987, only about 1,000 drive-in theaters remained in the country. By the end of the century, very few were left.

Elias M. Loew died in 1984. Merrimack Park closed the following year. The property was sold for development into an industrial facility. The theater’s huge movie screen, concession stand, ticket booth and the many speaker posts dotting the grounds were all taken down. In 2022, athletic footwear manufacturer New Balance opened a new 80,000-square-foot factory on the site.

All that remains of the Merrimack Park Drive-In are the fond memories of the fun times had by thousands of local moviegoers.

 



Ken Doherty is a lifelong resident of Methuen. He served on the Methuen Fire Department from 1980 to 2010. He is the Fire Department historian and a former member of the Methuen Historical Commission. He wrote “Á History of Methuen and its Fire Department” in 1996. He is retired and still living in Methuen with his wife, Paula.