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 Drive-In (1950- ) on S. High 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 screen 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.
Throughout the 1950s, the theater served up a steady diet of low budget genre films--war pictures, tons of Westerns, kid’s movies, and the schlocky horror and sci fi of the era. In the early 60s, teensploitation pictures, like the Frankie Avalon-Annette Funicello beach movies, found their natural home at the drive-in. Second-run Hollywood pictures would leaven the mix. The big Hollywood studios didn’t like drive-ins and were reluctant to place their big pictures there.
In the 1970s, drive-ins began venturing down the route pioneered by dying urban neighborhood theaters. The drive-ins began showing controversial, violent, gory, and nudity and sex-filled pictures that audiences couldn’t see on TV and the family-friendly suburban mall cinemas wouldn’t touch. Bikersploitation, blaxploitation, hixploitation, sexploitation, and horror movies flourished. American International Pictures, Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, and dozens of lesser producers kept the drive-in screens filled.
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. Many of them would have been Ohio State students. The W. 5th advertised in The Lantern as "your campus drive-in theater" and offered discount admissions 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. In the back row there might have been a custom van or two, converted into a make-out pad/dope den on wheels with floor-to-ceiling shag carpet, mirror tiles on the ceiling, and maybe even a waterbed. No pick-ups. Only farmers, loggers, and construction workers drove trucks back then.
The audience was mostly teens and young adults but not entirely. Drive-ins were popular with families who didn't have to worry about a babysitter for the kids. The nearby neighborhoods that have since become the Short North, Victorian Village, Harrison West, and Fifth by Northwest were lower-middle-class neighborhoods in the Seventies, full of budget-conscious, blue-collar families with children.
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 on April 3, 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 the past year, the price of gas had doubled to 65¢ a gallon!