A fire engulfs the old Sunset drive-in theater Monday morning. Construction crews were clearing the way for a gravel pit expansion.

Photo by Jerry Raehal

A fire engulfs the old Sunset drive-in theater Monday morning. Construction crews were clearing the way for a gravel pit expansion.

Final show at Sunset

Drive-in theater's 53-year run ends in smoke

— In a thick column of smoke, the Sunset Drive-In Theater passed into memory Monday morning.

Recently purchased by owners of a neighboring gravel pit, the theater's 53-year history began at a time when automobiles ruled American highways and even entertainment was no reason to leave the comfort of the car's upholstered interior.

The Museum of Northwest Colorado and Colorado Heritage Magazine helped provide a look at the theater's history.

A grand opening event took place at the new drive-in, located a mile west of Craig, on August 6, 1954.

Theater manager Doyle Jackson said outdoor theaters were the "coming thing" in America and presented to the public a Technicolor showing of "The Outlaw Stallion" and Disney's "Nature's Half Acre."

Schumour Theaters a division of Gibralter Entertainment, owned both the West Theater in Craig and the new drive-in theater.

Gibralter was a consortium of small chains in Wyoming, Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado under president Charles Gilmour and Wyoming theater chain owner M. C. Schulte.

Construction on the Sunset began in fall 1953. A public contest took place to name the theater.

The Sunset name won against entries such as Jackson's favorite, the "Feel and Squeal," and the drive-in theater gave a six-month pass for the contestant who came up with the winning entry.

The drive-in screen was built to withstand 100-mph winds. It took a railroad car of two-by-six inch lumber, held in place by steel plates welded at the local blacksmith shop, to frame the screen.

The screen face was made of two-by-six planks, which later were covered with corrugated steel facing to improve visibility.

The snack bar featured a small walk-in counter serving pizza, hamburgers and hot dogs.

"Shoestring potatoes" were a popular item, along with popcorn, ice cream and drinks that included a chocolate toddy.

An 11-member staff kept the theater's 280 automobile spaces clean and the snack bar tidy.

A planned Thursday opening was postponed when heavy rains turned the dirt ramps in the drive-in to mud.

Prices ranged from 65 cents for adults to 50 cents for students, and the theater changed programs Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Double features showed at the Sunset on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

The theater filled to capacity opening night, but ticket sales did less well than the company had hoped.

Jackson, who often hid in his car to catch patrons smuggling people into the theater in their trunks, would resign in 1962. He later returned to manage the operation from 1964 to 1967.

The Sunset and the West theater in downtown Craig were owned by the same company in the 1950s. Both were sold to Stan Dewsnup, who would own them for 20 years until his death in 2005.

Dewsnup also owned the Cosgriff Hotel in Craig and for a time considered converting that into a large theater.

The Sunset eventually closed in 1976, reopening briefly in the early 1980s as the Motor-Vu Theater when the West was closed for repairs.

Efforts were made throughout the years to clean up the drive-in theater site, which had faded into disrepair.

However, those efforts, led by the Moffat County Commission and Craig city officials yielded little results during the years, and the theater was recently sold to 3 B Enterprises.

The site that once provided a source of entertainment will be reshaped into a gravel pit.

Dan Olsen can be reached at 824-7031, ext.207, or dolsen@craigdailypress.com

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