The University District was once served by a drive-in theater less than 10 minutes away from 15th and High. The West 5th Ave. Drive-In at 900 W. 5th Ave. entertained Near Northside audiences for a quarter-century from 1953 to 1978.

The W. 5th was an unusual drive-in.

It was urban instead of rural. As a rule, drive-ins were located on cheap land close to a highway at the fringes of a city, outside city limits. and away from taxes and regulation. Not the W. 5th.

The W. 5th Ave was in the middle of an industrial and commercial district, surrounded by city on all sides. The drive-in was squeezed into a narrow lot between the Columbus Showcase factory, Exact Weight and Scale, and several other industrial buildings. A used car lot occupied most of the theater's 5th Ave street frontage.

The W. 5th Ave was small compared to other drive-ins. It was only about 5 acres and held around 250 cars. By comparison, the Linden Air (1950-80?), up on Cleveland Ave., and the still extant South High Drive-In on the South End are both 14 acres with capacity for over 500 cars.

The layout of the old W. 5th was also odd. Most drive-ins are fan-shaped. The W. 5th was rectangular. Most drive-ins located their screen at the narrow part of the fan, the W. 5th put its in one of the corners of the rectangle. It was odd but audiences didn't seem to mind.

Despite being urban, small, and oddly laid-out, the W. 5th was a normal drive-in in every other way.

Drive-In delicacies from old 1960s intermission ads.

Saturday, April 20, 1974 was a warm, sunny, spring day. It wasn't summer yet but the afternoon's 74° high had everybody thinking it wasn't far off.

Girls named Linda, Debbie, Donna, and Patricia wore their hair long and straight, dressed in bell-bottom jeans, halter tops, and platform shoes and hung out with shaggy-haired boys named Jim, Mike, and Gary. A number of them would have been Ohio State students. The W. 5th advertised in The Lantern as "your campus drive-in theater" and offered discounts to students.

The boys roared into the drive-in in gas-guzzling Ford Mustangs, Chevy Impalas and Novas, and unsightly Ford Pintos, Dodge Darts, and the occasional AMC Gremlin. Back in the back row there might have been an custom van or two, converted into a make-out pad/dope den on wheels with floor-to-ceiling shag carpet, mirror tiles, and maybe even a waterbed. No pick-ups. Only farmers, loggers, and construction workers drove pick-ups back then.

The audience was mostly young but not entirely. Drive-ins were popular with families who didn't have to worry about a babysitter for the kids.

The radios, tuned to 92.3 WCOL-FM, would have been blaring "Bennie and the Jets" by Elton John (#1 on the charts), The Jackson 5's "Dancing Machine," Redbone's "Come and Get Your Love," and Maria Muldaur's "Midnight at the Oasis." It being The Seventies--oddball, novelties like Ray Stevens' "The Streak" and Sister Janet Mead's "The Lord's Prayer" were also Top 20 hits.

If anybody had been listening to the news, the stories would have told of the continuing clean-up in Xenia, Ohio after a F5 tornado nearly erased it, the on-going Watergate investigations and collapse of the Nixon presidency, war in the Middle East, and economic stagnation and high inflation at home. In that past year, the price of gas had doubled to 65¢ a gallon!

On the bill at the W. 5th Ave. that Saturday in 1974 was a dusk-til-dawn horror show. Movies started just after the sun went down and kept going until it rose again the next morning.

Newspaper ad

Back in The Seventies, drive-ins showed drive-in movies—not what drive-in movie critic Joe Bob Briggs called “indoor bullstuff.” Blood, breasts, and beasts were the hallmarks of a good drive-in picture. Like the urban grindhouse, drive-ins of The Seventies offered patrons a steady diet of horror, crime, biker, martial arts, blaxploitation, hixploitation, and softcore porn pictures.

Saturday's pictures were certainly drive-in movies. All five were cheaply-made, lurid, blood-drenched horror films about murdering psychopaths, lesbian vampires, vengeful undead, and more vampires that featured ample violence, gore, and nudity.

Those were also the golden days of ballyhoo. They didn’t just show movies, they sold them. The theater wanted patrons to believe that this quintuple feature was the goriest, grossest, grisliest set of horror pictures ever made. To that end, audiences were offered “Up-Chuck Cups” in case they vomited watching I Dismember Mama. Free Insanity Insurance was offered to those who went mad at the horror of the Orgy of the Living Dead features.

Speaking of ballyhoo, check out these massively NSFW trailers for the weekend’s offerings: I Dismember Mama and Blood-Spattered Bride. (This trailer was supposedly directed by Bob Clark, the man who directed beloved holiday classic A Christmas Story. I hate when some guy goes berserk at the Bijou Theater.) and the slightly less NSFW trailer for the three Orgy of the Living Dead features. Poor John…

Happily, no one at the W. 5th on April 20th suffered poor John's fate and no cops were called out on a 10-40 ("Guy gone berserk at _____ Theater"). Bad horror movies were watched, junk food was consumed, beer and pot were illicitly indulged in, some people hooked up, some couples made out, some couples broke up, some people fell asleep, and a brave remnant lasted to the dawn for free coffee and donuts. It was just another night at the drive-in.

The W. 5th Ave. Drive-In soldiered on for another four years, closing at the end of its 25th season in 1978. The W. 5th was done on by the same forces that doomed so many other drive-ins. The land it stood on had become too valuable.

A McDonald's restaurant, a carwash, and some industrial bungalows replaced the theater and occupy the site today.

900 W. 5th Ave. today. You can't watch a movie but you can still get a cheeseburger.

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