Tuesday, January 17, 2017

From the Archives Part 1: The Oakley Drive-In Theatre

I've decided to start digging up some old stories that never really made it here to QC/D before. In the first part of this series, we take a look at the Oakley Drive-In Theatre as well as what became of it and what's there now.

Over the years here on QC/D, some of the most popular content has been articles involving urban exploration: the documentation of abandoned, forgotten, or little known places. Some of those stories have received the most traffic, feedback, and shares over the years. For a long time, it was the only thing I was interested in photographing and writing about. I still love the subject matter, but don’t get around to it as much as I’d like to these days. While recently taking the bus, I was reminded about a story that I never got around to posting aside from a small blurb years ago. As I thought about it more, several places came to mind that for some reason or another never made it into QC/D posts. I started digging through my old backup DVD’s and hard drives to dig up some older urban exploration stories. Over the next few weeks I’m going to share these stories from the archives and thanks to my fellow bus rider: we’ll start with this one:

From the Archives Part 1: The Oakley Drive-In Theatre

- The Oakley Drive-In Theatre's entrance as seen in June 2007.

For some reason, the subject of movies seems to be the most common topic of conversation between my fellow commuters and I. I had just left work and hopped on the No. 11 towards home when I had my headphones in hand and a man named Marcus thought I was someone else. Our friendly conversation quickly drifted from identities and into the latest Star Wars films. That discussion lead to us talking about places to see movies. As we neared my stop, he pointed out how the Oakley Drive-In had once been on our route, a few more stops further down Madison Rd. He had fond memories of the place. I did too, but they were of a different variety.

While Marcus had seen several films play out on the outdoor screen over the years, I had only been there once and it was well after the last film reels turned in front of the projector light. The popcorn was gone, ticket booths closed, and the replacement development was already going up. Jon and I had set out to photograph the theatre the summer before we both left for college when urban exploration was a chief priority in our lives. Now, nearly ten years later, I was living down the street from where the theatre had once been.

I got off the bus, said goodbye to Marcus, and then dug up one of my old hard drives. The photos were still there and the metal box whirred and whizzed in a way that makes you think the next time you fire it up may be the last. This coming summer, these particular photographs will be ten years old, and this October, this website will also reach the age of a decade.

In these “From the Archives” stories, Jon’s name might come up often. You may remember him from a past story: he’s the guy who explored Surf Cincinnati with me when we both got hooked on urban exploration. We’d been high school friends who became close after a first period journalism class where we’d been looking abandoned places up online. By the summer of 2007, we had both graduated and were planning on heading off to our respective colleges. During the time we had left though, we wanted to explore what we could. I don’t remember how we found out about it, but we decided one evening to go find the Oakley Drive-In Theatre on “the east side.” Unfamiliar with the area, we followed printed out map directions. For two kids who grew up in the city’s northern suburbs, Oakley might as well have been the other side of the world at the time. Where we hailed from, the Holiday Auto Theatre was what we had known as a drive-in. We didn’t know any others had existed as recently as 2005.

- Exit sign remaining at the theatre in 2007, nearly two years after it had closed down.

Unlike some of the other places we had explored, this one was relatively “easy.” Drive-in’s don’t typically feature too many structures from the get go. A haphazard construction fence was placed over the old ticket booths, but was easily circumnavigated by walking ten feet around it.

The box offices were boarded up and in the distance the screen stood over the flat land.

Replacing the projector room was the construction of a new building, its metal supports rising from the dirt.

A few old speaker poles (which presumably in later years just marked parking spots as most drive-in’s seem to have switched to radio broadcast audio), were lined up along the construction access road.

- Former speaker poles/parking markers laying on the ground.

- A light lining the drive-in's roads.

Out front, the old marquee still broadcasted the theatre’s name, but simply stated “closed for the season.”

- The Oakley closed for good in September 2005.

We were there in 2007, but the theatre had been closed down since September 2005. A few of the marquee letters were found in the grass.

Aside from a sign in the window warning anyone who planned to leave that they’d have to pay to re-enter, there was little of consequence left.

Construction on new development had started and neither Jon nor myself really knew how much time the theatre had left. A December 2005 article by the Cincinnati Business Courier touted some details about planned development and presumably, what remained of the theatre didn’t last long after our visit in 07.

The hulking screen was perhaps the best reminder of what this field had once been. In the fading summer light, it still stood proudly over the area even if it was no longer showing feature films when the sun went down.

There’s a mention of the theatre at the website Cinema Treasures that details a bit of the Oakley’s history and features this great photo from well before Jon and I had stumbled upon the place. It’s an early morning photograph, a contrast to mine from a stereotypical summer evening.

- Photographer uncredited at the website Cinema Treasures

This image feels a lot sadder than mine: truly reflecting the end of an era. For some reason, this photograph really sticks out to me and perhaps captures the location better than my then 18-year-old novice photographer self could.

- The abandoned Oakley Drive-In circa 2007.

According to Cinema Treasures, the Oakley Drive-In debuted on Madison Rd. in the fall of 1956, first showing Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much.” The grand opening had followed a legal fight that had seen nearby residents attempt to stop its construction. The Cinema Treasures article and its comment section seem to believe that the theatre may have once ran speaker wires to nearby residents who had a full view of the place, extending an olive branch of free films.

Eventually, the Oakley found itself under the management of movie theatre giant National Amusements. From the late 80’s until the early 2000’s, National Amusements had apparently been on a tear of closing down the drive-in’s they had acquired throughout the 60’s and 70’s. The Oakley Drive-In was sold to a private developer in 2005 and closed down in September of that year.

Looking through archived newspapers, you can find several job advertisements seeking seasonal help at the Oakley. Other mentions include the drive-in being used as a parking location with shuttles to downtown events like the flower show. My friend Chris also once told me about how he and other employees working in the Kenwood Towne Centre were supposed to park at the theatre during the holidays and then be shuttled to work, freeing up scarce parking for shoppers (he never did that by the way and good on anyone else who never did). Several other job advertisers in the older papers promote their proximity to the drive-in, using it as a landmark for job seekers in the days before GPS. Throughout the early 60’s until the late 90’s, it seems the drive-in was always looking for help:
 “Oakley Drive In Theater - 18 or over concession help or field work. Apply in person after 6 P.M. At 5033 Madison Rd.” 
- From the Cincinnati Enquirer on May 2, 1972

Incidentally enough, I now live down the road from where the drive-in was, an iconic place for many to visit and a place I had only been once as a young photographer. These days, the area is much different. The building under construction seen in my old photographs eventually became the Red Dog Pet Resort. Dogs now roam in a fenced off area where the screen once was.

- The Red Dog Pet Resort in 2017, previously seen under construction in the photographs from 2007.

Two senior living centers now occupy the general area with more development brewing. Construction noises rattle in the background and looking east, there’s cranes on the horizon.

- Sculptures at a senior living home in 2017 looking towards another retirement facility which has been built directly on the site of the former drive-in.

The area has been completely transformed, what once was there is hardly recognizable aside from a few reminders.

- Construction occurring nearby in 2017, directly adjacent to the former site of the Oakley Drive-In Theatre.

One of the roads now connecting all of the newer developments was once the exit path that allowed departing drive-in patrons to reach Madison Rd:

A wooden fence lines this road, but behind it still stands a ramshackle metal border that separated the drive-in and surrounding neighborhood.

If you look through the fence at just the right angle, you can still make out some of the “exit" signs that directed moviegoers outward. At the end of the exit drive turned regular road, a faded sign reads: “Your TIF dollars at work:” a symbol of the development that started over ten years ago, apparently with the help of Tax Increment Financing.

Google Earth’s historic satellite photos, as well as more current ones, give a good idea of how the area has developed over the years:

While the Oakley may be long gone, there’s still two places relatively close that you can catch a drive-in movie experience around Cincinnati. The Holiday Auto Theatre near Hamilton/Oxford and the Starlite out by Amelia. Additionally, there’s another one off of I-74 between here and Indianapolis.

There’s a lot that’s been written about the decline and disappearance of the drive-in theatre in American culture - a story often driven by nostalgia, but one that can be important to remember. Even I had nearly forgotten about my own photos of this place had it not been for a fellow passenger on a bus ride. Visit the site today and you’d have no idea a drive-in once stood there, looming in the distance off of Madison Rd. Maybe these photographs will serve as a nice accompaniment to the nostalgic memories people have from attending movies there in a the same way they’ve stirred my own personal sense of nostalgia into creating these posts from the "archives."

In the same way that some may look back fondly on their times at drive-ins during their prominence, I often think back to when I spent my summers exploring abandoned locations. Everything in one's nostalgic past can feel better than the present: a feeling which I doubt I'm the only one occasionally struggling with. Looking back at these photos from the summer of 2007 reminds me of a different time in my life, even if it wasn't always a better time. A decade later and now living a much different life than I thought I would be when I roamed the abandoned theatre, it's an interesting perspective to contemplate.

EDIT: QC/D reader Peter Huffman was kind enough to send in some photographs from when the theatre was still operational. Check out the followup here.

Stay tuned for more stories "from the archives" in the coming days. 


  1. Along Kellogg ave, there's an auto junkyard that fills the footprint of an old drive in. The cool part is the old marquee sign is still out front, having been re purposed for the the junkyard.

    1. Oh, yeah! I forgot about that place. Any idea which theatre it was or when it closed?

    2. That was just a drive-in restaurant. It was never a theatre...The Satellite Drive-In.

  2. The place on Kellogg was a drive-in restaurant, not a movie theater. Hence the hamburger on the sign.

    I visited the Oakley earlier in 2005 when I heard it was closing and took some pictures of my own.

    1. Peter, I'd love to see some. Do you have any that you'd like to share?

  3. The road next to the wooden fence hiding the metal fence serves as the course for Cincinnati Soap Box Derby qualifier as shown on a map here: http://www.soapboxderby.org/cincinnati/about-us/races/cincinnati-local-derby-race.aspx