Wes-Mer Endures With Movies Under The Stars
The first classic drive-in theater in the United States opened on June 6, 1933, with eager American motorists lining up to park their automobiles at the Camden Drive-In to watch movies under the stars in New Jersey.
There had been previous versions of drive-in theaters in New Mexico and West Texas, but the first patented big screen experience came in Camden in the early 1930s with ticket prices of 25 cents per car and the same rate charged for individual movie-goers. The family-friendly outdoor movie venues really took off after World War II. Hundreds sprang up across the country and became popular weekend destinations for parents and their children and for teenage couples seeking privacy.
In the Rio Grande Valley, the outdoor theaters were sprinkled across the region. Some communities even had more than one. Brownsville had the Charro on Boca Chica Boulevard and the Ruenes in Southmost. Harlingen had the Valley Drive-In Theater on Dixieland and Business 83 to go with The Citrus on Highway 77 between San Benito and Harlingen. Pharr had The Cactus with rustic Western scenery of mountains and buffaloes featured on the back of its big screen.
There was another outdoor movie theater that opened in mid-century and news of its debut was splashed on the pages of The Mercedes Enterprise in early July 1950.
“Congratulations To The New Wes-Mer Drive-In Theatre,’’ the newspaper’s full-page ad said on July 6, 1950.
The first movie shown on the Wes-Mer’s big screen was Everybody Does It, a romantic comedy film released the previous year with a storyline of a wife seeking to become an opera singer with the support of her businessman husband.
“Don’t miss it!’ the Enterprise ad said of the opening night movie experience of the Mid-Valley’s new outdoor theater located between Mercedes and Weslaco. The bottom of the big move advertisement listed the names of several Mercedes businesses that presumably helped to pay for the full-page splash. Those businesses included H&H Meat Products, Queen City Laundry, Mercedes Hardware, Mercedes Equipment Company, and Hollon Motor Company.
Ownership Changes & A Revival
Histories of the Wes-Mer state that its first owner was Jewel Archer, who also owned the Sky Vue Theatre in Elsa, which opened in 1949. Archer and his wife owned the Wes-Mer until 1956, when they sold it to Lew Bray. This was during the peak years of outdoor movie theaters when rising car ownership and Baby Boomer couples and their young children flocking to outdoor movies without the worries of kids making noise and being unruly at indoor movie houses.
The decline of the drive-in format began in the 1970s as home entertainment improved with color televisions becoming widely available and cable television being born. Rising energy prices in the 1970s led to the widespread use of daylight savings time, which caused drive-in movies to start an hour later and cut deeply into profitability. Inflation and high interest rates of that era also made the large land tracts used by drive-ins increasingly expensive.
The Wes-Mer was not immune to these factors. It closed for ten years from 1984 to 1994. Local histories state the Wes-Mer was purchased by Hector Garza in 2004. News accounts reported that he grew up going to drive-in theaters in South Texas and owned outdoor movie venues in Mission and Falfurrias. He revived the Wes-Mer and it is still open and going strong today under the ownership of Lydia Garza.
Of all the many outdoor movie theaters once found all over the Valley, only one remains, and it’s in Mercedes with the Wes-Mer. It remains a treasured place for families to take in movies under the South Texas stars, with Garza telling a local television station that “the most important compliment that we have gotten from people is that they feel comfortable bringing their families.’’
More than 70 years after its opening, the big screen of Wes-Mer still stands between two Mid-Valley cities, with carloads of families still lining up to enter its historic grounds. After all of these years, Garza said in the TV interview “there is (still) nothing better than watching a movie on a big screen under the stars, (with) a full moon’’ to keep everyone company.
- Ricardo D. Cavazos