Tri-Circle


Richland, Washington


The Autoscope-type theater is a drive-in with back projection screens. The projection and snack facilities are located in the center of a circle where the cars face toward their own individual screens. The Autoscope concept is outlined on page 62 of Don & Susan Sanders' The American Drive-In Movie Theater.

Washington State had one Autoscope theater, and it was the Tri-Circle in Richland. Autoscopes first came out in 1954 and never seemed to become particularly successful. The developers kept trying, and this theater was constructed in the late date of 1973. I was tipped off to this date by the venerable Tim Thompson in that legendary Oddities Page in the early version of his site. He said that it opened on May 30, 1973 with 120 screens and was owned by Lloyd Honey. Business guides through the 70s said that it was located on U.S. 12, a road that used to bypass Richland. The closest point where the road reached Richland is the place where the new freeway alignment of Interstate 182 crosses the road. When I finally found the drive-in, that is exactly where it was located: just a little to the north west of the on-ramp to westbound I-182 (exit 3), which must have been built in the early 1980s. The current road, Kennedy Road, now zig-zags over the interchange area, making it tricky to find the site today. The elevation lines didn't turn out too well on my map copy, but the lines indicated a depression from the outside towards the center of the circle.

I finally drove out to visit the site at the end of March 2000. The land is undeveloped, save for an Arco station on the north side. The gravel parking ramps are still there, as is the foundation and carpeting for the ticket booth and snack bar. Another touch is the the flat-rock surface between the snack bar and the screens, as a subtle way to get people to use one of the four sidewalks to get to the central building from their cars without blocking the projected image to the screens. The paved entrance road to the parking circle is still there, but the public road it used to be connected to has been torn up to allow the land to grow back. Sagebrush has taken over just about everything on the grounds.

After this visit, I went off to the library to track down newspaper advertisements and any opening day stories that I could find. I should have seen it coming....


Advance ad for the Tri-Ciricle, Tri-City Herald, May 25, 1973.

Opening film: Fritz the Cat
Opening Ad. When a drive-in opens with individual screens, and in 1973, and long after the Autoscope innovation was tried for the first time, what else did you expect them to show? Tri-City Herald, Friday June 1, 1973.


"You didn't say I couldn't come, you only said 'please.'" Either that, or business was so bad that they were desperate: "Adults! Please!" Tri-City Herald, June 8, 1973.


Snack bar and projection booth area, along one of the four sidewalks.


Detail of carpeting, bare floor, and some ring-like device of a metal strip in concrete.


The sagebrush has taken things over.


Even the ticket booth carpeting and foundation has survived.


The entrance road pavement survives, but not the public road that it used to be attached to. That was torn up when the road was rerouted for the freeway interchange.


X of the snack bar access sidewalks, in the middle of the flat rock area behind the back-projection screens.


USGS Richland, 1978


Overlay of old map on new map to show where the site of the Tri-Circle would be with the present-day interchange


You can still see the outlines of this theater on the Terraserver picture of this site.

Cinema Tour's Highway 65 Drive-In page, another Autoscope theater, and one with a tower film transport system with reels side by side, similar to the one at the Tri-Circle pictured below. Both theaters predated platters, and it would have been awkward to have two projectors for changing reels, though not impossible with more mirrors.


Update: according to Brenda Chilton, the remains of the site has been replaced by a Wal-Mart, a store attracted to drive-in sites like flies to a projector beam. No trace of the theater seems to be left.

Below are the photos by Jeff Anderson submitted by Bruce Humphery. Here you can see how the image from the projector is directed up by a mirror, then split by a "fly-eye" lens. Beyond those you can see smaller mirrors that may be the ones that direct the image to the various screens.


Construction of Tri-Circle Drive-In (Screens, Concession stand, and top of dome)


Screens, Concession and top of dome


Working on mirrors in dome


Dome enclosed


View of screens. There were 120 screens in the circle.


Views of lens board and bar mirrors There were 120 lenses in the lens board. Each board each focused individually.


Lens board, bar mirrors and point mirrors. Each point mirror is directed to the back of the screen It sometimes took several point mirrors to get the image around the center post and to the back of a screen.


Bar mirrors and point mirrors in the dome


Front view of film transport, projector, back side of 45-degree mirror and lens board.


View of film transport, power supply, lamp house and projector. Christie lamp house ans Simplex projector.


Back side of lamp and projector with 45 degree mirror and lens board


Hauling out the last of the equipment before being torn down.

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