BELEN — As locals eagerly anticipate the opening of the village of Los Lunas’ drive-in movie theater, many remember the days when they were able to catch a flick or two at the Zia Drive-In Theater — Valencia County’s one and only outdoor movie venue.
As the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the closure of entertainment venues such as movie theaters, the seemingly long-dead tradition of the drive-in theater has made a comeback. While several pop-up drive-ins have made their way back into the spotlight, it’s nothing like it was back then.
Even though the Zia Drive-In Theater closed more than 50 years ago, those who went in its heyday say they have fond memories of it.
According to Richard Melzer and John Taylor’s book, “A River Runs Through Us: True Tales of the Rio Abajo,” the Zia Drive-In opened on Oct. 24, 1951, on six acres north of Belen on old Highway 85, where the First Assembly of God Church is now located.
The News-Bulletin covered the grand opening of the drive-in, which was owned by Theater Enterprises, Inc., and reported the theater opened on a Wednesday night. The drive-in’s manager was Kenneth Stewart, who also managed the Oñate Theater in Belen and the Zia Theater in Los Lunas.
The first movies shown at the Zia was “Keep ’em Flying,” staring Lou Costello and Bud Abbot, and “Pittsburgh,” staring John Wayne, Marlene Dietrich and Randolph Scott.
“Come as you are and bring the whole family. Enjoy the show in the privacy of your own car,” the grand opening advertisement read in Oct. 23, 1952, edition of the News-Bulletin.
“Everybody went to the Zia back then,” said Belen resident and local historian Jim Sloan. “My stepdad and mom took me to see the Beatles’ movie, ‘A Hard Days Night.’ I remember my stepdad telling me that if they asked, I was only 5 years old.”
“Admission to the Zia was usually 50 cents, with no charge for children. However, on special nights, whole cars were admitted for just a dollar, regardless of passenger loads,” according to Melzer and Taylor’s book.
Sloan has many memories growing up in the Hub City, and while he mostly went to the Oñate to watch movies, he did go to the Zia a couple of times a month. He enjoyed their concession stand, where they sold popcorn, soda, candy — and sometimes candy apples.
“When it would get dark, you’d see the trunks pop open and people jumping out,” Sloan said laughing. “When I was old enough to drive, we’d sneak some booze in.
“It was pretty neat to go over there. They would complain if we got out of our cars a lot.”
Kenneth Williams, who now lives in the Jemez Mountains, was a student at Belen High School when he worked on the weekends as the projectionist at the Zia Drive-In Theater from 1959-60. He also worked at the Oñate Theater during the week.
“It was a good job for a kid,” said Williams, who was paid about 75 cents an hour back then. “I bought and paid for a 1955 Chevy Bel Air, two door, hard top working there.”
Williams enjoyed working at the drive-in, saying he liked being able to watch and project all of the movies. One, in particular that he remembers, was showing the first “Wile E Coyote and Road Runner” cartoon, which he said nearly made him fall out of the booth with laughter.
“The work was not hard; you just had to always be on your toes to be sure all was working right,” Williams said.
Sloan recalls the drive-in, which could fit a total of 197 cars, was nearly full every time he went, but more people would turn up depending on what movie was showing.
Some of the early movies shown at the Zia Drive-In Theater were “Adam’s Rib” with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, “The Daltons Ride Again” and “Little Women.”
When Sloan and his friends couldn’t afford or want to pay admission, they made other arrangements.
“I had a friend who had a farm out there, and we could sit up on the haystack and watch the movie from there,” he said. “If they knew someone in there, they’d turn up the speaker so we could hear it. If not, we’d just make up the words.”
Williams said for the most part everyone was well behaved. They’d have a some people sneak in and a fist fight would break out once in a blue moon. While most were on good behavior, Williams admits now — 60 years later — he and his friends were not always the best stewards of the drive-in.
“In school, I would pass notes around to all the classes letting them know to show up after midnight after the last showing,” Williams said. “My friends and I would open it up and the admission would be one beer per person. We’d get a pretty good crowd, and me and my friends would have beer for a month.”
Williams said about 25 cars filled with teenagers would show up to his “special showings” of the latest cartoons.
“We never got caught. We did it about six or seven times,” he said. “Mr. Huff, who was my boss, would collect all the proceeds at the end of the night, shut it all down and went home to bed. He never knew.”
Williams is now retired, having been a structural iron worker at Los Alamos National Labs. He remembers the days at the Zia fondly, and made many memories.
According to Melzer and Taylor’s book, one of the more unusual vehicles to appear at the drive-in was a tractor. The driver mounted the speaker on the steering wheel, covered himself with a blanket and ate popcorn while enjoying the movie.
Melzer also wrote about special promotions at the Zia Drive-in, including Chevy Nights, when anyone driving a Chevy got in for free. Several prizes were given away on other nights, including a 100-pound pig, a sewing machine and an old jalopy. The drive-in also hosted a fireworks display on the Fourth of July.
The book says the Zia Drive-In closed for good in September 1968, and the last two movies shown were “The Green Berets,” staring John Wayne and “Five Card Stud,” staring Dean Martin.
Clara Garcia is the editor and publisher of the Valencia County News-Bulletin.
She is a native of the city of Belen, beginning her journalism career at the News-Bulletin in 1998 as the crime and courts reporter. During her time at the paper, Clara has won numerous awards for her writing, photography and typography and design both from the National Newspaper Association and the New Mexico Press Association.