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The story behind the Fox Drive-In Theatre
By Jayne Rose Gacheri

A construction supervisor leaning on the parapet of the Drive-In Cinema’s bar-restaurant as construction nears completion in 1962 [Standard]

In the past two decades, Nairobi has witnessed a remarkable surge in infrastructure development and in its wake seen many iconic landmarks rendered obsolete. The Fox Drive-In, a memorable big-screen fixture from the 1960s through to the 2000s that was on the bucket list of many moviegoers then is one of them. 

We take you on a walk down the memory lane of the Fox Drive Cinema.

“Curtain Call for Kenya’s Last Outdoor Picture Show”

You will be excused if you are a movie enthusiast from the 60s, through to the 90s and your first reaction after reading this is: “How did I miss this?”  Well, sorry to burst your reality bubble but Fox Drive-In is now only a chapter in Nairobi’s history after it closed its doors in 2009!

Drive-In Cinema opening ceremony on March 2, 1958 [Standard]

Nostalgia

The theatre, built after the Second World War, was originally called Drive-In Cinema. Now in its original locale along Thika Road Superhighway, is Garden City Mall, Kenya’s first integrated residential retail and office development. Probably to capture the abandoned drive-in moviegoers, the mall boasts of a state-of-the-art movie complex that has a six-screen multiplex. 

At the onset of the Drive-In Cinema, only white patrons - the colonial settlers, the servicemen and their families, were allowed to the movie theatre, while Cameo and Embassy Cinemas were patronised by Asians and only showed Indian movies. 

The movie theatres were opened to all races in 1963 after the country attained independence from colonial rule and all public spaces that were segregated were integrated. Drive-In Cinema was then re-named Fox Drive-In.

Its only competitor was Bellevue – also now closed – located on Mombasa Road. The two drive-in cinemas were a masterpiece of their own in comparison to the open-air “walk-ins” or “toto kaa chini” (sit down child) where one watched a movie at randomly selected spots from mounted giant screens while standing.

Bellevue Drive-In Cinema, the only other drive-in cinema in 1962 [Standard]

The thrill of the drive-in theatres was getting to watch your movie from the comfort of your car. One would park next to the many stationary speakers for the sound effect. Usually, there were two shows – at 7.30 pm and 10.30 pm.

Some of the movies that premiered at the drive-in cinema include Kung Fu, James Bond, The Ten Commandments (I watched this) and a host of Indian and Punjabi shows. The cost was Sh40 per car in the 1970s, Sh100 in the 1980s, before doubling in 1990s, and right before its closure, the cost has shot up to Sh2,000.

An engineer doing a final check on the installation of the twin projectors at the Drive-In Cinema in 1992 [Standard]

Mystical setting

Imagine this! It is a Friday evening in the 1960s. The setting is Nairobi’s outskirts along the old Thika Road. The stage is in the midst of a vast Savanna field. The background sound is chirping of crickets and croaking of frogs, and above is a clear blue sky with the moon is at its fullest, drowning out all light but the brightest stars. The latest movie in town is showing on a mega outdoor screen of 120 by 70 feet.

The cars are slowly streaming in, one after the other coming to a halt at the box office booking booths. An occupant gets out of the vehicle to book their tickets or buy some refreshments before getting back into the car and drive to their preferred position along the curving driveway, next to expansive upright-built speakers. Tucked comfortably in the privacy of their cars, the moviegoers would enjoy the movie in the company of friends or family.

Speakers mounted on an upright post at Drive-In Cinema in 1962 [Standard]

The curtain falls

With the advancement of the internet and the use of DVDs, turnout at many movie theatres dwindled, coupled with the exponential rise in ticket fees. Attempts to keep afloat were becoming untenable.

Thus Fox Drive-In was closed in 2009, with the management opting to do a paradigm shift in cinema viewing through the installation of the 3D cinema system. This provided cinema goers with a new experience in theatres.

Yes, sadly the drive-in movie entertainment era is now in the past, a story in the archives of the things in Nairobi that you might never see again – a historical feature that used to define Nairobi in those days that current generations may never have the luxury of ever see again except in the archives or travelogues such as this!