Photos provided/ Dated photos courtesy of Ron Smaldone.
The Malta Drive-In Theatre soldiers on as one of the roughly 350 drive-ins left in America, down from a peak in excess of 4000 in the 1950’s. July 1, 2019 will mark the 70th anniversary of the opening of the Malta Drive-In Theatre. The screen was first lit on July 1, 1949 with a double feature of Abbott and Costello in “The Noose Hangs High” and Roy Rogers (and Trigger) in “On the Old Spanish Trail.” First owners, Sarto and Leona Smaldone, had been busy preparing the land and constructing the theatre since 1947. They continued to operate the business until 1977.
Through the years many improvements have been made. Although the Smaldones opened with the latest RCA in-car corded speakers on the poles, during the 50’s they widened the screen tower to accommodate the new Cinemascope aspect ratio. In 1968 they undertook major remodeling which introduced the iconic “Googie” style marquee that remains. The marquee and the neon-topped entry arches are honored by a New York State historical marker. They also greatly expanded the snack bar and constructed a new box office with canopy.
Second owner, Thomas Thornton, replaced the original wood-framed screen tower with the current all-steel screen tower around 1980. Current owners, Tom and Ed Caro, have operated the theatre since 1988. 1991 brought FM radio sound transmitted to car audio systems, replacing the speakers on the posts. In 2008 the field was expanded and graced with a second screen tower. Since 2013 digital projectors have taken over from the original 35mm film projectors.
The Malta Drive-In Theatre continues the “ozoner” tradition of offering a double feature for less than the price of a single movie at a “hardtop” theatre. Many patrons will park backwards and view from an open tailgate or hatch or sit outside in lawn chairs they have brought. Guests enjoy more freedom than is possible in an indoor cinema. Children do not have to be totally silent and can enjoy some playtime before the show. Some people even bring their pets with them!
The snack bar is the heart of the operation. Patrons start arriving 2 hours before showtime to claim a great parking space and enjoy a meal from the concession stand. In addition to the popcorn, candy, ice cream and grill and deep fryer favorites, there are upscale offerings like Philly Cheesesteaks. Especially popular are the specialties: funnel cakes and deep-fried Oreos.
First-run movies are what packs the place. The current offering is a double feature of “Toy Story 4” and “Aladdin.” Starting July 2 “Spiderman: Far from Home” will be paired with “Men in Black International” on the other screen. Admission is $10 for adults, $5 for children under 12, with an additional charge of $5 per vehicle if you bring your own food with you. The Malta Drive-In is open every night through the end of August and afterwards there will be weekend showings through the end of October.