Did you know that Crystal City was home to Arlington’s first drive-in movie theater?
The “Airport Drive-In” was operated by Paul J. Foley from 1947-1963 at 2001 Richmond Highway, just behind National Airport. Advertising a capacity for 1,000 cars, the Airport Drive-In quickly became a favorite of citizens in post-war Arlington.
The Airport Drive-In officially opened on September 10th, 1947, showing the film “Dragonwyck” starring Gene Tierney. Guests of honor included Arlington County officials, as well as Miss Arlington 1947, Peggy Wilson.
As the first drive-in in Arlington and one of the first in Virginia, the venture was initially very successful. Thanks to its strategic location between D.C. and Arlington, as well as frequently hosting fundraisers for the Arlington Safety Council, the Airport Drive-In began to establish itself as a staple in the community.
Dedicated to providing a family-oriented service, kids under 12 were admitted free, and cartoons were frequently played as part of the program. Families and couples were drawn from D.C. as well as the developing suburbs of South Arlington.
Growing Up at the Drive-In
Rex Paul Foley, son of Paul Foley, remembers what it was like growing up at the drive in.
“My father Paul J. Foley owned and operated this drive-in. I have wonderful memories, especially about having carte blanche access to the snack bar when it was open and closed. Our snack bar had delicious Smithfield Bar-B-Que sandwiches and other choices such as Pepper Steak from Murry’s Steaks. It was also the place where my brother and I learned how to drive. When we would come during the daytime with my dad (guess he was counting the money???) we would drive around the 25 acres, hoping not to hit any poles…I believe that the last movie that played for the last two weeks was The Dirty Dozen and I think I was there every night those last few weeks.
Segregation at the Drive-In
Virginia’s laws regarding "Separation of Races" in public settings had been adopted in 1926, requiring racially separate seating at any “public hall, theater, opera house, motion picture show or any place of public entertainment or public assemblage.” This law also provided that any proprietor who failed to segregate their audience would "be fined not less than $100 nor more than $500 for each offense” and that any patron of the theater who refused to take a seat in the assigned section or refused to move to the assigned section when requested, "shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor and upon conviction thereof fined not less than $10 no more than $25 for each offense.”
An Arlington judge ruled in 1957 that the segregated seating laws were valid, but in 1958 another judge ruled the law unconstitutional. And though no court had reversed the 1958 ruling, the laws still existed in practice. The Virginia State Government officially ended segregation in movie theaters in 1963. Learn more about the activists who desegregated Arlington's movie theaters in our 2022 blogpost.
Smart Growth Ends Airport Drive-In
Unfortunately, the drive-in’s convenient location would be its undoing. Finally falling victim to the expanding development of Crystal City, the Airport Drive-In closed in 1963. Today, the site is the location of the Crystal Plaza Apartment Complex.
Help Build Arlington's Community History
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