Movie Magic Under the Stars
Of all the innovations devised for the automobile, one of the most charming, and American, may have been for when it’s parked – the drive-in theater.
Whatever accomplishments the drive-in theater’s inventor – Richard Hollingshead, a New Jersey chemical manufacturer – may have made in his principal occupation, he proved a visionary by first reconceiving the windshield as a frame for a movie screen. That allowed decades of movie magic to unfold in the open air, a slice of Americana firmly entrenched in countless memories and still freshly minted every summer.
INSPIRED BY A LOVE AFFAIR
Conceived at a time when Americans were having a grand love affair with their automobiles, the movies were just one of a number of things people opted to experience with their cars. So was eating; hence, the proliferation of drive-in restaurants. You also could attend church – or a funeral – from your car seat. Or drive into liquor stores and up to banking windows. Driving was a focal point of the American lifestyle.
So the nostalgia of drive-in theaters captivating the imagination today is of no surprise. An indication that they still do was the Google® doodle for the drive-in theater’s 79th anniversary in 2012. Baby boomers remember their childhoods at drive-ins, and they want to share those moments with their families.
WHAT HAPPENED TO THE DRIVE-IN THEATERS?
The basic requirements for a drive-in are simple: a lot for parking and a screen large enough to be visible from all positions within it. Early experiments with speakers large enough to transmit to an entire parking lot quickly found foes in the neighborhood. The theaters soon turned to individual speakers or low-capacity AM frequencies to transmit sound.
The lure of taking in a movie from the front seat – or pursuing activities that parents wouldn’t approve of in the back – proved irresistible, and drive-ins grew to number a full third of all American theaters by the late 1950s. The sky, that flickering backdrop, and the degree to which the vehicle seat could recline proved the foundation of many an evening’s memory.
These golden days did not last. From a peak of 4,000, now fewer than 400 American drive-in theaters remain.
The trouble? The economics of drive-ins is surprisingly terrible. They rely upon the cycles of nature for their viability. Drive-ins have screenings only at night; they depend on darkness even during the longest days of the year.
Both the rise of the multiplex – multiple theaters under one roof, each of which projects many showings on a single screen instead of a drive-in’s one or, at best, two (plus a cartoon!) – and of suburban land value simply rendered most drive-ins unprofitable. And, of course, the rise of television reduced the need to leave the house for any sort of entertainment.
Many drive-ins held on, however, only recently to encounter recently their most dire threat of all – not developers or DVDs, but digital projection. Most distributors have announced their intention to switch entirely to digital projection, which is bringing the age of film canisters slowly to a close. Paramount became the first major American studio to do so, late in 2013.
The vast majority of drive-ins lack digital projectors, and their cost – approximately $70,000 per apparatus, not to mention other costs involved in sheltering them from weather and temperature shifts – is a tremendous burden for their operators. Many have launched campaigns to raise the money for projector conversion, and some have closed.
That which has brought the most peril to drive-ins – their independent ownership, without the insulation of chain multiplex deals – is also the source of their wonderful range of character. If there’s ever been a time to go to a drive-in theater to support a venerable American institution, this is it. Your reward will be to see a movie, perhaps two, and likely get an inimitable experience out of the deal.
DRIVE-IN THEATERS – WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
If you’re tired of the endless hallways and stale popcorn at the mall theaters, strike out for the genuine quirk of drive-ins. With almost 400 remaining, you’ll likely face a shorter drive than you think.
These drive-ins are across the country. Although many remaining are in small towns, there are a significant number of suburban and even urban theaters – one in Dearborn, Michigan, 8 miles from downtown Detroit, and another just 13 miles from Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Numbered among those in smaller towns are those in Globe, Arizona, and Gas, Kansas.
Not to mention screens near Copenhagen (Denmark) and in Ahmedabad (India). The appeal of the drive-in transcends national borders.
Family-focused programming predominates, but there’s plenty of variety; innovative programming and pulpy midnight movies are screened frequently. Regardless of the programming, you’ll often find vintage concessions ads or even more memorable vintage cautions against “public displays of affection.”
NEW WAVE OF WATCHING
Some drive-ins have dispensed with cars altogether, or at least cars that are mobile.
What started as an adventure with the family automobile has become an outdoor movie experience – with or without a vehicle.
The Blue Starlite Drive-in in Austin, Texas, advertises as the “world’s first Mini Urban Drive-in.” Both it and the Electric Dusk Drive-In in Los Angeles, California, offer a limited number of car slots; they mainly sell walk-in tickets where family and friends take a blanket or lawn chair, along with an FM radio, to watch under the stars.
VINTAGE SCREENS TO BACKYARD POP-UPS
Today you still can enjoy your favorite flicks outdoors. The drive-ins haven’t completely disappeared, so check out one that’s alive and well. Or you might be able to stroll down to a local recreational park for a scheduled family movie on temporary, portable screens – often air-inflated pop-ups.
Find these organized community-based movie showings in parking lots, in stadiums, on beaches, alongside buildings – anywhere a group can gather. Take what you need – a picnic dinner, snacks, lawn chairs, and couches, even a portable picnic table.
Whether you go to a community gathering using a temporary screen or to one of the almost 400 remaining drive-in theaters, you can take a step back in time to savor the best of American traditions with your family and friends.
TOP 10 DRIVE-INS TODAY
Bengies Drive-In Theatre, Baltimore, Maryland
Find some genuine city charm at Bengies, which claims the largest screen on the east coast (and footnotes that claim!), not to mention a vintage 1956 snack bar.
Shankweiler’s Drive-In Theatre, Orefield, Pennsylvania
The oldest continually operated drive-in (since 1934), it has weathered not only the switch to digital but also a 1955 hurricane that leveled its projection booth. Shankweiler's is made of sterner stuff.
Coyote Drive-In, Fort Worth, Texas
This recent opening in Fort Worth offers double features every night and even hitching posts for patrons arriving on horseback from a nearby trail. It does seem to be unacceptable to remain on your horse through a screening.
Delsea Drive-In Theatre, Vineland, New Jersey
New Jersey’s only historic drive-in boasts modern, healthy fare; it indulges the past but preserves your health with veggie burgers.
Wellfleet Drive-In Theatre, Wellfleet, Massachusetts
If on Cape Cod, enjoy movies, ice cream, and mini-golf.
Blue Fox Drive-In Theater, Oak Harbor, Washington
This Pacific Northwest theater offers $1 admission for children up to age 10, cheap pricing for all others, and go-karts for all.
Swap Shop Drive-In, Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Come in the afternoon for the bounteous flea market and arcade, then settle in for a movie. Just make sure your purchases don’t block the screen.
Electric Dusk Drive-In, Los Angeles, California
See The Big Lebowski, Clueless, and Harold and Maude at this hip downtown L.A. pop-up theater.
Cherry Bowl Drive-In Theatre, Honor, Michigan
“Our Popcorn is Even Topped with Real Creamery Butter and Made in the Original 1953 Popper.” Also, the Cherry Bowl offers vintage cartoons and fresh caramel corn.
The Amusement Park Drive-In, Billings, Montana
Have you ever ridden a roller coaster around a drive-in? We didn’t think so.
Find a Drive-In Theater near you.
TEN THINGS WE REMEMBER ABOUT DRIVE-INS
One Asbury Park, New Jersey, drive-in offered space for 25 airplanes. That didn’t last long.
Sound and Heat
In an effort to extend the profitable season for drive-ins, some devised contraptions to deliver heat through window vents. They didn’t last long either.
A Swim to Freedom
One Plattsburgh, New York, drive-in was rumored to draw viewers from Quebec, who would swim to catch the theater’s racier fare.
A Supreme Disappointment
Richard Hollingshead took his court case to enforce his patent for the arrangement of the drive-in as far as the Supreme Court. It declined to hear the case, so a lower court decision against Hollingshead stood, and his patent was unenforceable.
Retro Ads Galore
Drive-ins birthed countless goofy concessions ads. YouTube® has a trove of them.
Admission by the Trunk
When movie distributors shifted from collecting a set fee for every print to collecting a portion of the gross, drive-ins largely shifted to per-car fees to maximize attendance. Sneaking someone in the trunk was a venerable practice.
The Sacred and the Profane
One California drive-in hosted notable California evangelical Robert Schuller’s services. Others screened pornography, although communities generally didn’t let that last long.
Some Stand Out
Pennsylvania holds the most drive-ins – 33. Ohio is a close second with 30.
Just about any account of drive-ins is full of tales about trips when patrons – especially younger ones – wore pajamas. Don’t just read about it; repeat the feat!
The New Meets the Old
Many theaters are holding Kickstarter campaigns to fund new projector acquisitions.