Photo: Leawood Drive-In in 1953. Courtesy Leawood.org
Leawood Drive-In was host of many memories in the Southland
By Diane Euston
Warm summer nights drew hundreds of people to the countryside. With easy entertainment on their minds, they drove their cars to 123rd and State Line to catch the latest box office hits. Armed with buttered popcorn and sodas from the concession stand, people sat excitedly in their vehicles with their attention toward the big screen.
The Leawood Drive-In was one of several drive-in movie theaters in the Kansas City metro area, but its remote location and state-of-the-art facility were something to remember. For over two decades, the Leawood Drive-In entertained thousands of people. The drive-in’s demise and a new owner’s fight for a commercial enterprise in the heart of a residential area showcases an interesting period of history that many will not soon forget.
Dickinson Pushes the Drive-In Business
The Leawood Drive-In would have never happened without the enterprising spirit of businessman Glen W. Dickinson (1891-1963). After abandoning his family’s Ford tractor business, Dickinson bought his first movie theatre in Manhattan, Ks. in 1920. With two screens, it was an immediate success and allotted him the funds to buy another theatre in Lawrence, Ks. By 1930, he had 30 theatres in operation in Missouri and Kansas.
In 1946, Dickinson expanded into the drive-in business, opening theaters in Salina, Shawnee and Pittsburg.
In 1952, he had plans to build on a 32-acre tract of land at 103rd and State Line on the Kansas side, just to the west of the small town of Dallas, Mo.
Within a short time, 10 residents in the area filed a petition to stop the construction that had already begun. They cited “traffic dangers, noise, and trash” that would result from the business. The land fell in Oxford Township, where the zoning board for the area wasn’t yet established until August 1952. There were no zoning laws prohibiting its construction, but residents nearby weren’t about to go down without a fight.
Dickenson told the Kansas City Times, “We plan to call it the Leawood Drive-In. It will be Southern colonial in appearance and will be a thing of beauty residents will be proud of.” Despite the fight for the location at 103rd and State Line, Dickinson was unable to continue his plans and bought land further to the south at 123rd and State Line where the population was scarce.
Thus, the building of the Leawood Drive-In began in late 1952 at the old townsite of Oxford (then known as 120th and State Line). Oxford was platted in 1857 just across the state line from the town of New Santa Fe. On the Missouri side, New Santa Fe hosted a variety of stores, homes, blacksmith shops and a post office that had services for travelers on the Santa Fe Trail. By the time the theatre was set to open in 1953, only a few farms and a church stood.
The Leawood Drive-In Opens
On Friday, June 26, 1953 the Leawood Drive-In opened to the public. They boasted their three-dimensional display sign, paved entrance and exit roads, and a 1,000 car capacity. Opening ads coerced customers by stating the Leawood Drive-In was “A beautiful ride o’er the countryside!” Two shows per night were shown at 8:15 and 12:10 with cartoons shown in between. A free playground and a patio near the concession stand gave parents a chance to entertain children while seeing the latest feature on the big screen. Entry was 60 cents per person and “kiddies” were free.
Children living on nearby farms were able to jump the high fence (minus a few snags in their jeans) and freely enjoy movies on the patio.
In order to entice customers to the city outskirts, Leawood Drive-In used several different gimmicks, such as winning a state-of-the-art washing machine by guessing the distance walked by the manager in one day.
By June 1956, the drive-in was in the church business. Advertising “Come as you are, stay in your car,” the Rev. W. Dieter Flemming from Colonial Congregational Church in Prairie Village was hosting drive-up church services. From the movie projection booth, Rev. Flemming used a microphone to deliver his message. On the first early Sunday service, 250 people in approximately 90 cars drove into Leawood Drive-In for church. When Mayor H. Roe Bartle appeared as part of the services, over 500 people listened from their cars. These early morning Sunday services continued for many years.
Other attractions included Olathe native and actor Charles “Buddy” Rogers, appearing in 1957; he was married to movie star Mary Pickford. In order to keep customers comfortable in the winter, the Leawood Drive-In installed “Bernz-o-matic in-car heaters” that would give “healthful radiant heat just like the sun’s rays.”
A Sign of the Times
By 1959, the area around the Leawood Drive-In was being bought up by real estate companies. Several neighbors who had escaped the noisy city life didn’t care for the traffic and noise the Leawood Drive-In brought. In February 1959, a 254-acre large tract of land belonging to Allen B.H. McGee was sold to J.C. Nichols and later became Verona Hills.
Just three years later, a 120-acre horse farm on the north side of 123rd St. known as Fleetwood Farm was purchased with plans to build residential homes.
In 1967, Leawood South was in the planning stages and was to include 600 homes, a golf course and apartments. Houses were said to start at $30,000, a high price at the time.
The drive-in site had been zoned by Oxford Township for commercial use. In 1967, the site was annexed to the City of Leawood. As more people moved south, the more unlikely the coveted Leawood Drive-In would survive. Dickinson sold the drive-in in 1976 to commercial developers and closed its doors.
A Land Dispute
In 1975, the City of Leawood honored the drive-in’s site for commercial zoning. But by 1977, the 36 acres that encompassed the property was bought for $24,000 an acre–a steep price. The purchaser was Wilson “Buzz” Williams, president of Colonial Savings and Loan Association.
When Williams purchased the property, it was under the assumption that the site would remain commercial. Williams planned 32 condos, convenience shops, a 55,000 square foot office building, and a three-story building to be named “Oxford Plaza.” Because the theatre was closed at the time of purchase, it was claimed that the commercial zoning didn’t have to be honored.
Neighborhood associations near the defunct Leawood Drive-In weren’t happy with the idea of having commercial real estate next door to their homes. President of Leawood South Neighborhood Association V.C. Thomas told the Kansas City Star, “Shopping centers are a sore point with the people out here.”
Others claimed that State Line Rd., then two lanes with no traffic lights nearby, wasn’t adequate to hold the traffic a shopping center would create.
When Williams purchased Leawood Drive-In under the assumption it was zoned for commercial use, he had no idea that he would be part of many years of contention over the property.
My parents bought their lot and built on it less than two blocks from the Leawood Drive-In in 1974 when it was still up and running; it was of little concern to them. “We just wanted a house at a cheap price,” my mother, Helen Van Hecke recalled.
The proposed shopping center was such a hot button in Leawood that the city rented Ranch Mart Auditorium on 95th St. to host the hearing in February 1978. Several homes associations, including Blue Hills, Foxcroft, Verona Hills, Leawood South and Verona Gardens showed up to protest.
Leawood Elementary was set to open its doors just to the west of the proposed site in Spring 1979, and many residents expressed concern that the traffic of a shopping center would be dangerous. 300 people showed up with their list of reasons to turn down the request. Kansas City councilman and Verona Hills resident Bob Lewellen begged, “Don’t do this to State Line,” citing State Line Rd. should be free of commercial development.
Developer Buzz Williams reminded everyone, “The Leawood Drive-In was there long before they came over.”
Years of Delay
Naming noise, traffic, and crime as a reason not to build, the residents around the former Leawood Drive-In would not accept a shopping center. Into the late 1970s, the Leawood Planning Commission and the City Council remained undecisive.
Because Buzz Williams couldn’t get what he wanted out of the site, he opted to reopen the Leawood Drive-In in the Spring of 1979. Even though it had been closed since 1976, it was found to be fit for operation. The Kansas City Times reported, “Williams said he was looking for a movie exhibitor to lease the drive-in, and the choice of movies, X-rated or otherwise, would be up to the exhibitor.”
This new threat was worse than a shopping center. Within a few short weeks, Williams had large trees removed that were separating residential homes from the drive-in. Many thought this was in retaliation for killing the shopping center project. In November 1978, the city approved the permit for the movie theater with “a detailed screening plan,” eliminating the threat of half-dressed vixens parading across the projector.
Even though he had threatened to open Leawood Drive-In, the plans died and the movie theatre remained vacant.
The Start of Leawood Plaza
Years of contention ended finally in January 1985 when a proposed grocery store and shops seemed to be the answer to the problem. As part of the compromise, 12 acres were used as commercial development and the rest as residential.
In 1987, Leawood Plaza- a change in name from Oxford Plaza- was built. Originally, the shopping center was to be anchored by a 62,000 square foot Bob’s IGA but the deal fell through. Shortly after, Hy-Vee built their store that so many enjoyed until 2014.
Remembering the Past
A plethora of memories occurred at the drive-in, even when it was the site of an 1850s town called Oxford on the edge of civilization. Even though early settlers, like the McGees, had left their farm and moved away in 1959, they, too, returned to visit the Leawood Drive-In in their cars with friends and dates. I can fondly remember my mom and dad taking me up the street and across State Line on windy days to fly my kite in the vacant lot – a vast space of brush and rubble that was once the Leawood Drive-In. By the mid-1980s, the area was a distant memory of what once was.
Diane writes a blog about the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com