By Kyle Barr
For almost three decades on summer nights North Shore residents gathered together on lawn chairs, blankets or in the comfortable seats of their cars while a speaker hooked into the car’s window played action, romance or comedy into their expecting ears. It was a scene played out practically every summer night at the Rocky Point Drive-In, and while undeveloped Rocky Point was a dark, wooded area, the brightest light for miles around was the movie projector and the big, bright screen.
The Rocky Point Drive-In was just one in a multitude of drive-ins on Long Island. There was one in Smithtown, Brentwood, Coram, Nesconset, Patchogue and Riverhead, to a name a few, but now every one of them is gone. The only remnants of the one in Rocky Point is the marquee sign surrounded by shrubs and weeds on the side of Route 25A.
The Mammina brothers, Joe and his younger brother, Wayne, had both worked at the drive-in as teenagers during the early years and remember both the comfortable and weird aspects of working at such a place.
“We used to call it the passion pit,” Joe said and then laughed. “It was a real lovers’ lane.” “You never went to the cars in the back rows at the drive-in because the windows were always steamed up,” Wayne said.
The Rocky Point Drive-In opened on June 16, 1961 with a capacity for 750 cars that would drive up onto small ramps to better see the movie over the cars in front of them. It was built and owned by Prudential Theaters but was later sold to United Artist Theaters, which operated it until it closed in 1988.
The theater existed in a time when Route 25A was a two-lane road bordered by woods, and nearby there were only a few houses and places with rural sensibilities like horse barns. “This was the sticks,” Joe said.
The site was a large field surrounded by a fence. To the side sat the concession stand next to a playground that the children used during intermission. Opening on Memorial Day weekend and then closing on Labor Day, the drive-in would play a feature film, a B-movie, then the feature again on a 110-foot screen. The first two films they showed were the 1960 movie “The Alamo” starring John Wayne and the 1961 flick “Ole Rex.”
“By the time it was over, you didn’t get out of there until 1 or 1:30 in the morning,” said Wayne.
Joe worked at the drive-in first in the concession stand, then as a ramp man — the title for the people who were guards of the drive-in. Dressed up in white suits they were in charge of making sure nobody snuck into the venue without paying and corral the people and children back to their seats after intermission.
“The ladies who worked at the ticket booth in the front would say ‘the car coming in is kind of low in the back,’ and there would be five kids in the trunk,” Joe said and then chuckled. “And quite a few times they would be friends of mine.”
The memories of the drive-in are bundled like candy wrappers in nostalgia. It was a time of optimism, said Joan La Manno, who, along with her husband Charles Peter, founded C.P. La Manno’s family restaurant in Miller Place. La Manno was the manager of the drive-in concession stand through the 1960s. “Hot dogs, hamburgers, Dixie Cup ice cream, popcorn galore. The popcorn machine was going constantly. It was a lot of fun. All our workers were in sync,” she said.
“She would take her kids to work with her,” added Joan’s daughter, Michele. “My father opened the pizza shop while she was still working there, and people would rush up, get a pizza, and then go and wait on line at the drive-in, and there would lines of cars waiting to get into the movie,” she said. “It kept the community going and the community together.”
Joe agreed, saying, “Everything was a family affair, everybody was sort of related. Anyone who talks about the Rocky Point Drive-In talks about my dad, Joe.”
Joe Sr. started as a ramp man but then became manager of the whole property.
“He was such a fabulous manager, really sweet, really kind, very generous. He was a good man,” Joan said.
The films were played on two big carbon-loaded projectors, each the size of a grand piano, that glowed like a welding torch from the carbon rods that helped it work. Some film reels were as wide as a grown man’s outstretched arms. The projectionist had to time it perfectly, first listening for the bell and then looking for the six dots that would tell him when to switch from one string of film to the other.
“We did the same thing in the Navy,” Joe said. “I used to show movies on the aircraft carrier, and they would always ask me ‘how did you know how to change that?’ and I would say, ‘I’m not telling you.’”
The titles of each week’s films were displayed on the marquee on Route 25A and the letters were laid out every week by ramp men standing on rickety ladders. The old sign for the drive-in is still there, though now surrounded by trees and overgrowth. For a while the sign read Rocky Point Driving Range after the property was bought and used for practicing golf swings. After the range closed the sign became progressively dilapidated, as the words were slowly peeled off to reveal the “Drive-In” words underneath.
The current property owners, Heidenberg Properties Group, have been trying to build a big box store, first a Lowe’s and later a Target, on the property for several years. The Town of Brookhaven changed the zoning of the area from retail to recreational in order to restrict such a large store the town said would be inappropriate for the area.
New York State courts have upheld the decision even after the properties group brought a lawsuit and then an appeal against the town. The Mammina brothers don’t go to too many cinemas anymore, not with the advent of Netflix and on-demand movies.
The La Manno family might go to see the occasional movie, but they still say it is not the same feel as pulling your car up, setting up your blankets on the grass, as the sun goes down and the movies play under the stars. Said Joan, “The drive-in brought people together. It was just a happy, family time.”