2501 E. Broadway Avenue,
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Functions: Auto Salvage Yard
Located at 2501 E. Broadway Avenue, West Memphis, AR. was the most famous of all Arkansas drive-in theatres, the Sunset Drive-In. Known as “the drive-in that censorship built”, the trade press regularly gave national attention to the bookings of the Sunset Drive-In.
The Sunset Drive-In opened on August 18, 1950 with Maria Montez in “Sudan”. It had a very open policy of booking just about any film banned by infamous censor Lloyd T. Binford of Memphis, Tennessee. Binford rejected all films with train robberies, any film with a person of color in the same scene as a white person, and any film that could lead to juvenile delinquency. Sunset Drive-In owner J. Jackson Rhodes loved the attention of the banned film titles as did its manager of six years Bob Kilgore. It was soon taken over by Dave & Abner Lebovitz who also operated the Skyview Drive-In and Lamar Drive-In, both in Memphis and they retained Bob Kilgore as manager of the Sunset Drive-In.
In addition to the 532 spaces for cars, the Sunset Drive-In had an outdoor seating area for 400 people. In the early-1950’s, the West Memphis population was just 2,225. But in the three post-War West Memphis theatres in 1952, there were more theatre seats than the town’s entire population. Yet the tiny town’s ozoner was often packed. The notoriety of the banned films led to the Sunset Drive-In getting 65% of its business from out of state with just 5% being from tiny West Memphis.
Binfordized films including “Night of the Hunter” (Binford comment: “Rawest film I’ve ever seen”); “Jesse James’ Women”, the re-issue of Hitchocock’s “Notorious", “Island of the Sun", “Violated", “Night of the Hunter", “Black Tuesday", “Blackboard Jungle", and “Rebel Without a Cause” (Binford: promotes juvenile delinquency). When the theatre began using a mobile billboard truck across the river in Memphis to promote films including “She Wolf", the city objected with police chief McDonald banning the practice calling the half-nude women on the poster a distraction to drivers.
The Sunset Drive-In presentation improved in 1956 with new RCA Century projectors and brighter lamps to hit its new CinemaScope screen that was 105’ feet in width. With the local West Memphis PTA and Garden Club each attacking the Sunset Drive-In for playing vile films, that only helped increase publicity. A team of flaggers tried to reduce the major traffic snafu off of U.S. 70 that occurred at show’s beginning and end. And manager Bob Kilgore went on the offensive stating that the Sunset Drive-In’s policy was in the tradition of the First Amendment and that the banned films he was booking were actually playing everywhere in the United States except Memphis.
As the Sunset Drive-In lease came due, the MPAA instituted a self-regulatory code in 1968 that all but gutted the need for censor boards. As a result, racy films appeared in Memphis and its censor board was disbanded. The Sunset Drive-In opted to fade into the West Memphis night in 1969. It was demolished becoming a long-running auto salvage yard. West Memphis - once a bustling escape for sinners and movie-goers - was movie theatreless once again.
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