In 1957, two Wellfleet citizens, Charles Zehnder and John M. Jentz, purchased about 26 acres of land in South Wellfleet just across the Eastham border, and formed the Spring Brook Center, a company that operated the Wellfleet Drive-In theater. There’s no public record of why they planned this venture – but it was a popular time for this type of entertainment. In 1958 there were more than 4000 drive-ins in the U.S.; today, one account estimates that there are only 357 still operating. The movie theaters in Orleans and Provincetown were popular spots as well, but the Wellfleet Drive-In was an entirely different movie experience.
The Wellfleet Drive-In opened on July 3, 1957. A 2008 Cape Cod Times article stated:
“I remember my father telling the story of opening night,” said Ben Zehnder, Charlie’s son. “The asphalt wasn’t quite dry, so the cars all sank in with their tires.” Jentz, a graduate of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a degree in engineering, had designed the pavement to rise in such a way that every car had a good view, but in all the excitement hadn’t quite managed to get the drying time right.
Zehnder and Jentz purchased their equipment from RCA: 650 speakers and speaker baskets plus other equipment. The Drive-in has stayed pretty much the same, one screen and about a 700-car capacity. Now the sound can also be accessed on FM stereo.
My Dad was always up for trying something new. He loaded up the family car and drove us there the first summer, when we watched Debby Reynolds in Tammy and the Bachelor. Later, the Wellfleet Drive-In was a date place, and, for a short while, I added to my summer earnings by working at the snack bar on Wednesday nights. That must have been during the era when Eleanor Hazen managed the site – including the miniature golf and snack bar that was added in 1961. I’m not sure how long Famous Tang’s, the Chinese restaurant, lasted, but it was there in 1988 when Alice Hoffman, the novelist, wrote her encomium to the Wellfleet Drive-in in The New York Times. I’m sure that others in South Wellfleet have the same memories.
Today, the site is miraculously still in operation with the support of the Wellfleet Cinemas added in the 1980s, and the ever-popular Flea Market helping make this business last. Now the drive-ins that managed to last into the 21st Century are threatened with having to make an expensive change to digital projectors. Recently, Honda got into the process of trying to save these nostalgia spots by awarding $80,000 grants to nine family-owned drive-ins around the country so they could upgrade.
When you’re at the drive-in, you’re sitting on the land of the Lincoln family who had deep roots in the town of Eastham, and eventually settled in the section that became Wellfleet in 1763. Like many old Cape families, Joshua Lincoln farmed his family land from the mid-19th Century to its end, when the heirs had moved away and were probably glad to sell their nearly one hundred acres. Everett Osterbanks arrived in Wellfleet in the mid-1920s and bought the land, then sold off portions. In 1950 he sold a piece to Maurice and Anna Gauthier, whose family still owns the Maurice’s Campground complex in South Wellfleet. The acreage that became the drive-in had another owner, a Mr. Dettman, and then afterwards it became the Zehnder/Jentz property when they formed their Spring Brook Center business.
A recent Boston Globe article (March 15, 2014) by Sarah Shemkus concerning the Mendon (Mass.) Twin Drive-In purchase notes that this one and two others are the last remaining drive-ins in Massachusetts. In addition to South Wellfleet, the other is the Leicester Triple Drive-In outside of Worcester.
The New York Times, September 4, 1988
Boston Globe, March 15, 2014
Barnstable County Deeds available at www.barnstablecountydeeds.org
Newspaper account online at www.genealogybank.com.