Growing up in Laurel throughout the 70s and 80s, there was never a shortage of places to catch the latest films.
I lived at Steward Manor for most of this period, and while my parents and I did occasionally venture out to Greenbelt and New Carrollton, it was rare. Because right at home, technically within walking distance, were three theaters: Laurel Twin Cinema, tucked away in the northwest corner of Laurel Shopping Center; Laurel Town Center, at the corner of Rt. 197 and Contee Rd.; and arguably best of all, a drive-in—Wineland’s Laurel Drive-In on Rt. 1, directly across from the Shopping Center and mall.
While the drive-in unfortunately shut down not long after I had the unique chance to watch E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial there (Wineland’s closed in October, 1984), Laurel made up for it the following year with the addition of its biggest theater yet, the brand new Laurel Lakes Cinemas 8—a venue that would eventually expand to 12 theaters (Hoyt’s Laurel Lakes 12).
There were some changes over the years, particularly with Laurel Town Center. The 700-seat twin theaters (where I’m not the least bit ashamed to admit having watched Rocky III half a dozen times when it came out—it was that awesome) were acquired by Paul Sanchez—”a local moviehouse operator (who) made great gains in attracting crowds to his growing empire with a maverick 99-cent admission policy.” (Film Talk by Jeffrey Yorke; The Washington Post; Dec 19, 1986; WK37.) In the late 80s and early 90s, Laurel Town Center became known as the place to watch movies for 99 cents—the only catch being that the movies weren’t brand new releases, but rather, films that had been out for several weeks. But hey—99 cents! I’m also not ashamed to admit that I saw Roadhouse there at least twice during that period, but I digress.
Yes, Laurel had the movie market pretty well covered, back in the day.
But incredibly, not a single one of these movie houses survives as a functioning theater today. Ironically, the newest of them—the massive Hoyt’s Laurel Lakes 12—barely lasted 15 years. The entire Laurel Lakes Centre was bulldozed in favor of the Lowe’s Home Improvement Center that occupies the space today.
I’m trying to contact various property managers to inquire about any possible photos of Laurel’s old theaters in their heyday; likewise, if you have any snapshots you’d be willing to scan and share, kindly let me know; or post them on the Lost Laurel Facebook page.
In the meantime, here’s a quick look at some movie memories, Laurel-style.
Despite the dysfunctional selections on the marquee, the 2007 photo above does a great job of capturing the essence of the iconic Laurel Twin Cinema sign. This was taken during a brief reopening, but the theater closed once again shortly thereafter. The marquee, which still stands at the entrance to the Shopping Center, has lost its “CINEMA” neon, and the rusting hulk is likely on borrowed time. When I stopped by and snapped the photo below just before Christmas 2011, it was advertising the new L.A. Fitness center (albeit in a rather dyslexic manner) currently being built in the former Hecht Co. building nearby.
Especially at night, this sign was typically the first and last thing you’d see when passing by Laurel Shopping Center. For some reason, I’ll always picture it with The Breakfast Club on the marquee… probably because that’s where I first saw it, and I’ve loved it ever since.
If you click on the fascinating photo below from 1975 (and look beyond the spectacle of the parachutist landing not far from where Gov. George Wallace was shot just three years earlier) you’ll get a glimpse of the theater itself off in the distance. If I had to guess, I’d bet that Dog Day Afternoon and The Apple Dumpling Gang were playing at the time. Laurel was always pretty good about ensuring film fare for both adults and kids.
Speaking of iconic signs and iconic movies, here are some rare shots of Wineland’s Laurel Drive-In, where I (and apparently every other kid in Laurel) saw E.T. for the very first time. According to sources, the drive-in had a capacity for a staggering 800 cars, and a 250-seat patio viewing area for walk-in customers. It was also it cost a whopping $650,000 to build, including a 10,000 square-foot concession/projection building. The drive-in originally offered motorized golf carts (the “special shuttle service” described on the opening night advert below) to transport walk-ins to their patio seats. (driveins.org)
The photo below shows the empty drive-in grounds in October 1984, shortly after it closed down. As some have remembered, there was indeed a small playground directly below the screen—you can see it in this stunning shot.
I actually only went to the drive-in for that one movie; probably because it was a double-feature, and my parents were wary of ever getting stuck in the car for that long again. Strangely enough, however, I have an equally strong memory of the back of the drive-in screen. It was a common vantage point from my Steward Manor neighborhood, as my friend Jeanette’s photo from her apartment in the early 80s clearly reflects.
Others have fondly recalled watching movies (sans sound) from the vantage points of the Laurel Centre Mall upper-level parking garage, Burger King, and Pappy’s, all of which provided an unimpeded view of whatever happened to be playing that particular night.
Below is an aerial comparison (which I highly recommend exploring for yourself at historicaerials.com) showing the drive-in complex as it appeared in 1980, and in 2006 (which is essentially how it remains today).
It’s safe to say that I might never have the chance to watch another movie in Laurel, even if the plans for this new Laurel Town Centre (or whatever they’re ultimately calling the new shopping center that’s scheduled to replace the old Laurel Mall) do include the state-of-the-art theater that’s promised. Regardless, I’ll always associate memorable films with Laurel. My very first movie date was at Laurel Lakes Cinemas. The last movie I saw in Laurel was there, as well—Twister, in 1996, with my future wife.
It’s kind of fitting, Twister being the last film. Every one of those theaters have been swept right away…