Admiral Twin Drive-In Experiencing a Rebirth

Editor at Large

SHOWTIME: Proudly displaying the rendering of the new Admiral Twin Drive-In after the groundbreaking are, from left, architect Shelby Navarro, Tulsa Mayor Dewey F. Bartlett Jr., and movie theater entrepreneuer Blake Smith.

GTR Newspapers photo

It was warm, moving rapidly to hot at 10:30 a.m., June 11; but the faithful came out in force, many of them bearing shovels. It was a groundbreaking, a nostalgia party, a get-together of like-minded fans, and a promise of good times to come. The only thing lacking was a phoenix; the legendary bird that would be consumed in flames and then rise from the ashes, for the Admiral Twin Drive-In Theater was being reborn.

When it went up in flames Sept. 3, 2010, theater co-owner Blake Smith resigned himself to the idea that the era of drive-in movies in Tulsa was over. The screen had been made of wood and because it was impossibly expensive to insure, it hadn’t been.

It would take roughly a third of a million dollars to replace it and Blake didn’t think he could raise it. Then the incredible happened; money began to appear as if by magic with people writing checks or robbing piggy banks to come up with a nest egg of roughly $30,000 to get the Admiral restored. “Banks,” Blake said, “might have been cool to a loan application but were impressed with the outpouring and lent the money for the rebuild of the screen.”

Tulsa architect Shelby Navarro, who loved driving past the iconic Admiral screen on his way around town, volunteered his services. Smith decided to rebuild. So on that Saturday June 11 morning, he invited anybody and everybody to come out and help the project get started. Come they did! It was a fascinating crowd. There were married couples who had spent their courting years at the Admiral. Darrell Sackett had the top down on his 1957 Ford Fairlane convertible as he drove into the parking lot; one icon honoring another.

There were people bringing kids so young that they couldn’t possibly have remembered the Admiral unless they could recall watching the screen while being strapped in car seats.

Two brothers, Chris and Billy Waggoner, had a special reason for wanting to come – their one great moment of Hollywood fame came at the Admiral. They had been about 12 years old and were riding their bikes in 1982 when a guy stopped his car, got out and said “Would you kids like to be in a movie?” Francis Coppola was filming “The Outsiders” about teen gangs in Tulsa in the 1950s and one of the scenes would take place in the Admiral. The script called for star Matt Dillon to chase two kids and the young Waggoner’s looked immanently photogenic and chaseable.
The rewards of being pursued were considerable; each brother was paid $179 and, months later, when retakes were ordered, paid the same amount again. They had to be here to see the theater reawaken.

The hold the Admiral has on Tulsans is understandable when one considers just how long it has been around. It opened May 24, 1951 and joined a host of drive-ins already in business: The Riverside, the Skyline, the Apache among others and soon to be joined by more. How long ago was that? On that day the New York Giants baseball club announced that they had just added a player named Willie Mays.

The opening, originally on a single screen and called the Modern Aire, was highlighted by Johnny Lee Wills and his country musicians and at 9:30, between shows, there would be a fireworks display undoubtedly endearing the Admiral to mothers nearby trying to put their kids to bed. The opening feature was “Oh, Susannah,” starring a solid B-movie cast of Rod Cameron, Forrest Tucker and Chill Wills. It cost a whole dollar to get a carload of movie fans admitted and popcorn and soft drinks could be had for a dime.

The theater was so popular that a second screen was added and, in time, the name changed to the Admiral Twin. For years the theater was noted for getting the very best Hollywood product on an exclusive basis. At the time an indoor theater manager groused “I don’t think they’ve actually made money at the box office in a decade, but oh, those concessions!”

The drive in craze slowly fazed out until the Admiral was the last in the city left standing. Then, last September, even it seemed relegated to the history books. But Tulsans said they didn’t want it to die. Blake Smith and co-owner Steve Peace agreed. On that Saturday well over 100 Tulsans were there to lend their support: the show must go on.

Editor’s Note: Blake Smith is vice president of Select Cinemas, which in addition to the Admiral Twin Drive-In also operates RiverWalk Movies in Jenks and the newly re-opened MovieStar Cinema in Broken Arrow. For an article about the Moviestar Cinema in Broken Arrow, please see

Updated 07-05-2011

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