Something New Under the Moon
This post is written by Tracy Matthew Melton ‘85, library board member and donor.
Over the winter and spring of early 1941, a towering landmark rose on the rural landscape less than two miles from downtown Williamsburg. The structure housed the screen for the Stockade Theatre Auto-Torium at Casey’s Corner, where Richmond and Ironbound Roads intersect.
Upright cedar logs set adjacent formed a stockade-style wall, with a log blockhouse, enclosing the drive-in theatre operations and parking area neatly tucked between Richmond Road and the C&O Railway tracks at the country crossroads where KFC, Aberdeen Barn, Southern Pancake & Waffle House, and Pizza Hut (closed 2020) are located today. Vehicles queued for entrance where Mama Steve’s has been in business for more than a half century.
Charles M. Evans and Cecil S. Houck conceived the Stockade in Walton, New York and decided to build their drive-in theatre in Williamsburg. Evans had operated the Royal Restaurant on Delaware Street in Walton for decades. He had ties to the Virginia Peninsula though. His daughter, Virginia Lucille, had come to Williamsburg as a W&M freshman in 1932 and had married Thomas M. “Happy” Halligan, one of the school’s biggest football stars, in 1937. Their wedding was at the summer cottage at Sycamore Landing on the York River that the Evans family had purchased. Happy Halligan worked at the Williamsburg Theatre (Kimball Theatre).
The following year, Evans’ younger daughter, Pearl Dixie, married Jackson Barnes, a young Williamsburg sport who ran with Happy Halligan, Bob Wallace, and the local W&M football crowd. The couple moved into a place on Capitol Landing Road.
Evans’ theatrical partner, Cecil Houck, was a charismatic impresario and musical genius. Houck also had some Peninsula ties. He had served with Virginians in the US Army 104th Ammunition Train, 29th Infantry Division in the Great War and had disembarked from France at Newport News. After the war, he performed in several bands. He was bandleader of Houck’s Orchestra in Upstate New York in the mid-1920s. He returned to Walton, worked in a silk mill, and eventually became manager of Smalley’s Walton Theatre. The Walton Theatre was a grand structure and still serves as a public hall for the Delaware Valley town. In January 1939, Houck’s only child, his daughter Emalie, dressed as a Dutch farm girl and tended a cow in the theatre lobby, welcoming local farmers to the annual Walton Farmers’ Night.
Evans proposed to Houck that they build a drive-in theatre near Williamsburg, with Houck as manager. Evans bought land on Richmond Road, and the partners scouted the Auto-Vision Outdoor Theatre near Albany, NY, which opened in May 1940. The restaurant owner and his wife had multiple motivations for the venture. Their only children were in Williamsburg. Drive-in theatres were a modern, booming business. The Rockefeller Restoration was making the town a popular tourist destination. The weather was mild, the drive-in season long.
Local reports claimed Williamsburg’s Stockade was the sixth drive-in theatre in the US, but approximately three dozen were in operation by the time the New Yorkers started construction along Richmond Road. The first modern drive-in had opened near Camden, New Jersey in June 1933 and another dozen or so had followed over the next five years, including one near Alexandria, VA. But drive-in construction accelerated into 1940 and 1941, with almost 100 in operation by the US entry into World War II that December. After the war, thousands rose across the US.
The Richmond Road site was a typical one for drive-in construction, on a rural highway sufficiently far outside town to avoid light pollution and minimize conflicts with neighbors over noise and traffic. Contractors cleared tall pines from the swampy site, graded the parking area, erected the 31’ x 43’ screen and housing, fencing, snack bar, and projection booth. Early drive-ins mounted large speakers near the screen, but the Stockade installed more neighbor-friendly individual car speakers that were already coming into widespread use. The stockade design was meant to fit with the town’s historic image.
The Stockade opened on June 9, 1941 with an Abbott and Costello movie, “One Night in the Tropics,” followed on the calendar by “Blondie Plays Cupid” and Gene Autry and Jimmy Durante in “Melody Ranch.” Its motto was “Something New Under the Moon.”
There was also something old under the moon. The Stockade went up in a racially segregated town in a segregated state. Law and social norms enforced segregation in housing, education, dining, almost everything. Help wanted ads routinely specified race (and gender).
Prior to construction, Houck explained, “The theater will be arranged so that white and Negro patrons may both be accommodated. Williamsburg has no theater at present for Negro patrons.” “This Theatre built with special sections for both White and Colored patrons,” the drive-in’s premier opening ad informed.” An accompanying news story explained, “Half of the area is separated from the other half by a fence, one side being reserved for white patrons and the other for Negroes. Restrooms are provided in each area.”
Whites entered to the left of the screen and blacks to the right, so that parked, facing the screen, blacks were in the left lot, near the railroad tracks, and whites in the right, near Richmond Road. The snack bar was on the dividing fence line so that the races could approach from opposite sides.
In the early years, the Stockade faced wartime blackouts, gas rationing, and electricity restrictions during a coal strike but eventually developed a booming business, “Often, the state police and sheriff’s department had to be called to direct traffic.” The screen and surrounding stockade fence were the most prominent landmark west of town.
Nellie Evans and Gertrude Houck, the Stockade proprietors’ wives, were active in civic associations, most notably the Toano Woman’s Club, Hickory Neck Episcopal Church, and Ewell Home Demonstration Club, Evans serving as vice president and Houck as president of the Woman’s Club. Gertrude sometimes assisted her husband at the Stockade.
Houck sold out his interest and left the Stockade in 1958. He soon after became the advertising manager for the Williamsburg bureau of the Daily Press newspaper. He had also taken up playing banjo for Colonial Williamsburg (CW) and pursued that calling for decades. He appeared regularly at Chowning’s and Christiana Campbell’s Taverns and the Lodge and was often a featured performer at special events. Cecil became one of the best-known, most respected regional musicians, really a legendary CW personality. Gertrude also often appeared as a costumed colonial interpreter.
Around Houck’s departure, Dixie and Jackson Barnes bought out her father, and Beatrice and Leonard Legum, a local couple, leased the Stockade. The Legums’ is an important Williamsburg story for another day.
The Stockade closed after the 1963 season. Like elsewhere, suburbanization and commercial development drove up the price of land along Richmond Road. The drive-in was on a large, graded lot at a busy intersection less than two miles from a major tourist destination. Down went the screen, up went the restaurants.
Something else was new under the Williamsburg moon. Women had only been attending W&M for fourteen years when Virginia Evans arrived on campus in 1932. Out-of-state students had only recently begun to matriculate in significant numbers as an ambitious building campaign transformed the campus, giving the historic college some of the nation’s most modern facilities, while the Rockefeller Restoration generated unsurpassed national publicity for the school and local community.
Virginia’s matriculation, at least to an extent, set off a chain migration, drawing to Williamsburg the Evans and Houck families, including Dixie Evans and then her parents (year-round) after WWII and Cecil and Gertrude and then their daughter Emalie and her husband George Coulter and their children in 1956. The families brought capital, talent, and energy. W&M’s emergence as a national liberal arts college, and then university, fueled Williamsburg’s development, and vice versa.
Tracy thanks Jim Richardson, Linda Campbell, Lera Coulter, and Benn Legum for their helpful contributions to this blog post. Jim lives in Walton. By chance, his father A.B. Richardson attended W&M 1918-1919.