Drive-in Movie Theaters Are Still A Thing
Right down the road from us in Moon Township, Pennsylvania, is one of the last best of an American Classic. The Dependable Drive-In. Operating since 1950 it defined the summer nights of so many of us in this part of the world, as did the Drive-ins that operated across the country in small towns and big cities. Today only a relative handful of them are still in operation, but they are resurging – as fast as our drive for nostalgia and all things yesteryear. If you have never been we encourage you. Many of these theaters today offer modern amenities and upgraded sound systems – but a few are out that have not changed a bit in decades. As a homage to the great summer blockbuster movies, and summer in general, we present you with this special installation of our blog which will walk you through what all the hype is about.
We love our cars and we love movies. Drive-ins, which were built on the outskirts of towns and cities, gave Americans and opportunity to have a family night out or a date night without having to take everyone out of the car. Many of these theaters were built with playgrounds. All of them had concession stands. Some had multiple screens, so you could choose from multiple movies (usually a double feature) starting at dark. The speakers hooked onto the car windows and you could either watch through your windshield, with the top down, or from a hatchback. If you had kids they could run around and play until the movie started. If you were on a date it was common to use that time to make out. As JSTOR surmised:
Drive-ins were born at a time that Cohen calls “a watershed in American film history.” As Hollywood’s golden age ended, studio monopolies did too. Simultaneously, audiences moved from cities to suburbs. Drive-ins embodied those changes and created an entirely new way of watching the movies. No longer did audiences have to sit in fancy movie palaces where silence was golden. “At the drive-in, spectators could smoke, eat, talk, and make out.” This harkened back to older audience practices common during the vaudeville era. Like old-school fairgrounds, exhibition halls, and nickelodeons, drive-ins offered a variety of activities, from the main event movie to dance floors, contests, and even fireworks. Drive Ins were some of the South’s first integrated sites.
This informal, carnivalesque atmosphere lent itself to a strange combination of socialization and isolation. Outside of the car, attendees could mix and meet new people. Inside, they enjoyed privacy and a viewing opportunity that had more in common with the living room than the movie palace. Cohen sees that in-car experience as a transition to television—a shift that, ironically, did away with movie-going to a large extent. Those cultural changes took place within a broader context of postwar migration and a growing middle class. Drive-ins also appealed to a new audience—a mixed bag of viewers of different classes, neighborhoods, and races. In that respect, they were revolutionary. They were some of the South’s first integrated sites, and African-American moviegoers felt more safe and respected there than in the dirty balconies of Jim Crow movie theaters. Obese and disabled people, housewives and children, and working-class families also flocked to drive-ins. This sense of mixing, writes Cohen, created anxiety among cultural and business leaders and a perception of the movie theaters as “passion pits” where anything could happen.
On November 13, 1933 the first Drive-in theater opened in Camden, NJ. First known as ‘Park-In’ they later took on their current name. Initially patented by Richard Hollingshead who the History Channel notes was:
A movie fan and a sales manager at his father’s company, Whiz Auto Products, in Camden. Reportedly inspired by his mother’s struggle to sit comfortably in traditional movie theater seats, Hollingshead came up with the idea of an open-air theater where patrons watched movies in the comfort of their own automobiles …The young entrepreneurs received a patent for the concept in May of 1933 and opened Park-In Theaters, Inc. less than a month later, with an initial investment of $30,000. Advertising it as entertainment for the whole family, Hollingshead charged 25 cents per car and 25 cents per person, with no group paying more than one dollar. The idea caught on, and after Hollingshead’s patent was overturned in 1949, drive-in theaters began popping up all over the country… The popularity of the drive-in spiked after World War II and reached its heyday in the late 1950s to mid-60s, with some 5,000 theaters across the country. Drive-ins became an icon of American culture, and a typical weekend destination not just for parents and children but also for teenage couples seeking some privacy.
The decline of these theaters from the 5,000 across the country in the 1960s to somewhere around 300 today can be largely blamed on several factors. First, for the most part, until very recently, the theaters were only able to get B-movies and second run films. This made it impossible to compete with the brick and mortar theaters that got the block busters, A- Movies and new releases. The fun of the Drive-in experience could not compete with the opportunity to see the latest and newest films. On top of that, the land that these theaters sat on became more and more valuable, driving the development of these sites. Finally, the growth initially of video and then DVD rentals and then the explosion of on-demand entertainment options, left a lot of people unwilling to take the drive to sit in their car and watch something they could just as easily see at home.
Despite these struggles, some theaters have survived, some are thriving. Today it is even a thing again to go to the Drive-in.
They are fun, they are nostalgic, and so who better than the Saturday Evening Post to weigh in. Despite it all, they point out, Americans still love Drive-in theaters and taking in a movie under the stars:
Drive-ins continue to operate in all but a few states. Though far below the estimated peak of around 5,000 outdoor screens during the 1960s, the… remaining drive-ins continue to be a regular choice for families. Organizations like the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association work to get the word out on the format. And new drive-ins do occasionally appear. The Moon-Lite Drive-In Theater in Terre Haute, Indiana, expects to open in the near future near the original site of the North Drive-In, which closed in 1988.
According to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association, the number of operating Drive-ins is 317 remaining sites with 559 total screens. Only Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii, Louisiana, and North Dakota are devoid of them. If you live in another of the remaining 45 states, or near the border of one (or are visiting one), you should really go see a movie. We promise it will be one of the most fun things you can do in your car this summer. Today, afterall, you can see Summer blockbusters on their opening night with enhanced screens and awesome sound – and still enjoy the nostalgia of watching a movie with your friends and family under the stars.