From usher to drive-in theater owner, Sylvan K. Barry, 85, who died Sunday of heart failure, saw the movie theater industry at its peak.
A memorial service is set for 1 p.m. today at Mission Park Funeral Chapel North at 3401 Cherry Ridge Drive. He will be buried at Mission Park Cemetery North.
To support his mother and a younger brother, Barry began working as an usher at the Texas Theater when he was a teen-ager.
During the 1930s, he also worked at the Empire, Highlands and Laurel theaters. A long bout with tuberculosis kept him from serving in World War II.
When the war ended and San Antonians began returning home to their jobs, Barry found himself out of work. But some equipment he'd purchased at one of the military bases here enabled Barry to open an indoor theater on the East Side.
It was called the Ritz because, recalled Helene "Pinkie" Winslow Barry, his wife of 56 years, "Only four letters fit on the marquee."
The lease ran out a year later, forcing Barry to look to the West Side, where the Fiesta Drive-in was not doing so well.
About a mile away was the Bluebonnet, which Barry changed to the Capitan because he felt it would have more resonance with West Siders.
The 1950s were the heydays of the drive-in. At its peak, in 1958, there were more than 4,000 drive-ins in operation across the United States. With nearly 400, Texas had the most outdoor theaters, according to the Web site www.driveintheater.com.
Because many West Side families didn't have cars in the 1950s, Barry placed benches near the front of the Fiesta screen and near the snack bar for what was then a largely walk-in crowd.
Most nights, Pinkie Barry was at the Fiesta, helping out at the concession stand or preparing pizzas while her husband checked on the cast-iron speakers or other parts of the operation before moving on to the Capitan.
"Each night, he'd have a list of things that needed to be done the next day," Barry's wife said. "We picked up our own film, purchased our own supplies and were at the drive-in early to open up."
Barry lost the Fiesta lease in 1970. He got out of the business after he sold the Capitan property in 1978.
Willing to experiment with other businesses, Barry also owned a brick factory in Laredo and a canning plant in Iowa. He later got into drilling oil wells in West Texas.
"He was interested in everything and wanted to try new things," Pinkie Barry said. "He was an enterprising man and he loved challenges."
Barry also is survived by a daughter, Patty Locke.
By Carmina Danini San Antonio Express-News