The Fabulous Thunderbird
When I first saw a movie listing for the Thunderbird Drive-In in Ft.Lauderdale, I was certain it had to be a typo. How could a drive-in movie theater possibly have fourteen screens? Surely that must have been screens 1-4 and not 14. When I was finally able to investigate this mystery in person, I could barely believe my own eyes but the advertisement was correct. I had discovered the drive-in equivalent of a multiplex theater.
The Thunderbird Drive-In, now more commonly known as the $wap Shop Drive-In, was opened in 1963, by bizarre coincidence on the same day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, by Betty and Preston Henn. Henn, an automobile enthusiast with a degree in chemical engineering, is a man even more colorful than the films he plays. By the time he purchased the Thunderbird, he already owned a successful chain of southern drive-ins. The theater was only a single screen at that time and had originally been built in 1948. Over the years it had become known as a venue predominately attended by the local black residents but Henn made improvements to make it more attractive to the general public. A few years later, he added the flea market that has sustained the enterprise ever since.
Over the years, the property gradually expanded to 88 acres. Additional screens began to pop up on the pavement like mushrooms in a meadow. The flea market grew larger and even featured a full size circus at one point. In recent years, over a million dollars was spent on renovations that included a covered walkway connecting the main area with the parking lot on the opposite side of Sunrise Boulevard. Today, the $wap Shop is one of the largest flea markets in the United States and the largest drive-in movie theater in the world.
To keep up with the nutritional needs of its patrons, the $wap Shop has multiple snack bars including a large centrally located one. In addition to the traditional snacks of popcorn, candy, and soda, they also offer heartier items like hamburgers, hot dogs, and even hot wings. For customers who hate to leave the comfort of their automobile, golf carts loaded down with packaged items like chips and cold drinks patrol the grounds on a perpetual basis. Some of these carts even have grills mounted on the back.
The movie screens vary in size and location and appear to be scattered almost haphazardly across the huge black top. The theater’s original screen is the largest and most traditional, it still sports a giant neon Thunderbird logo on the back, but it is now designated number nine in the series. Some of the screens are located on the sides of buildings and others are free standing billboard types situated at odd angles to small projection booth buildings.
With so many screens in one location, it is impossible not to notice several other movies playing in addition to the one you came to see but it is never a distraction. In some ways, this actually serves as an excellent form of advertising. On one recent visit, my friend Memphis Phil and I decided to return a few nights later to see another film because the parts we caught on that screen looked interesting. All the films are projected in 35mm and each screen has its own unique FM frequency for very clear sound reception. The old metal speakers on a pole are conspicuously absent from the landscape but it makes parking and maneuvering much easier.
Having fourteen screens does not necessarily guarantee fourteen different films playing at one time. All of the films at the $wap Shop are first run and the newer and more popular ones are often given more than one screen. Some of these movies are shown as many as three times in one might on a dedicated screen, depending on the running time. Many of the films have co-features playing with them and it is no problem to change screens. We counted eighteen different films showing the last time we were there and had no problem scheduling a very enjoyable double feature.
The property around the $wap Shop has continued to develop over the years and rumors circulate constantly that the theater has been sold to the Indian gaming commission. Preston Henn has repeatedly told reporters, customers, and vendors alike that he has no intention of selling his drive-in even if some of the exaggerated sums of money in the rumors were true. If you find yourself in South Florida and in need of a break from the beach and the sun, the Thunderbird Drive-In is still standing. For an admission price of only $6.00 for adults, you could see as many as three first run films in one night and with fourteen screens to choose from, you don’t even have to worry about what’s playing.