Long live the drive-in! (1932 – present)
By Matt Martin
Art has always thrived on innovation, and the history of cinema is no exception. Over the last hundred years different changes, improvements, and alterations to filmmaking have shaped the art of movies from simple and static to complex and dynamic. Most of these changes have occurred inside the camera, or rather, changes have mostly occurred in how we make movies. These include the ever-evolving improvements in camera technology, the creation of more efficient editing software, and the visual leaps made in CGI digital effects, as well as advancements in lighting, set design, and financing.
But very little has changed in how we show movies. It all started with projecting a film on a blank wall, and aside from basic improvements in picture quality, sound clarity, and theater comfort, the experience of seeing a movie is pretty much the same today as it was a century ago – it’s still just a bunch of people huddled in a darkened room, staring at the lights on the wall. And many of the innovations in the theater experience over the years have been unnecessary, fad-driven, or sometimes just hokey, ranging from the goofball, circus theatrics and giveaways of the 50s to flawed techniques like 3D in the 80s. But among all the theater innovations that have come and gone, of all the ways we’ve tried to change how we watch movies, none are as iconographic, as long-lasting, as downright fun, and as American as the drive-in movie theater.
In 1932, a man named Richard Hollingshead, owner of a chemical company in New Jersey, wanted to find a way to merge his two favorite interests: cars and movies. After multiple incidents of having his favorite movies ruined by the endless theater distractions of loud, disrespectful patrons and crying children, Hollingshead wanted a more isolated viewing experience. At the same time, aware of the growing car culture that was becoming a national obsession, he saw the opportunity for a new kind of theater. He experimented in his own driveway in Camden, New Jersey. Mounting a 1928 projector on the hood of his car and nailing a screen to trees in his backyard, Hollingshead spent three months toying with everything from the question of sound quality to the ideal way to park cars. He invited neighbors to try out his creation. Their instant love for his outdoor theater inspired Hollingshead to think bigger.
He opened the first official drive-in the next year on June 6, 1933 in Riverton, New Jersey. It had 400 parking spaces and a small kitchen/concession stand. It would only survive for three years, but it was enough time for the idea to catch on. By the next year, five more drive-ins opened in the Northeast, as well as the first one out west, outside Los Angeles. By 1936, another 25 drive-ins had opened in over a dozen states. Hundreds more would be added every year around the country over the next two decades. By the early 50s, there would be over 4000 outdoor theaters spread out across America. The drive-in had become a staple of cinema life.
The drive-in seemed to solve multiple problems of cinema fans. Options on food and drink were now available, as people could bring their own supplies. Smoking was no longer an issue. And on one hand, families with children, especially babies, could enjoy a movie without distracting others or hiring a sitter. In addition, teenagers with access to cars found drive-ins the ideal place for dates. So connected did the drive-in become with the growing sexual revolution, that more conservative areas of the country began calling them “passion pits” and many were actively attacked or protested.
But then, the drive-in has always been reflective of its time period. In the 1940s, as suburbia was sprawling outside of every major city, the drive-in was a family destination. Most films shown were safe for families, and amusement parks, petting zoos, and other kid’s attractions were common. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the growing youth culture began to dominate the drive-ins, as teen films (biker films, beach party movies, drug flicks) became the standard, and shows ran later to encourage couples to stay into the night. The kid’s attractions disappeared, replaced with pinball machines, juke boxes in the concession stand, and live teen bands before the feature. By the 1970s, drive-ins had gone as far from their family roots as they could go. Many became unofficial, but openly recognized, meeting points for couples needing a hotel room and a swarm of endless drug deals. Open gang fights, lit only by headlights and the flickering movie image, became increasingly prevalent.
In the 1980s, spurned on by skyrocketing real estate costs and the breakout of VCRs and cable television, the popularity of the drive-in began to wane. One by one, drive-ins began to close, often altering into flea markets and industrial parks. Some were simply abandoned, slowly swallowed up by the surrounding forests. The drive-ins had once reached over 5000 locations at its peak. As of 2011, only 371 remain in operation in America. Their future remains uncertain, mostly kept alive by nostalgic filmgoers.
Tennessee was once one of the drive-in capitols of the South. Now only 22 still exist here. Memphis has only one left: the Summer Drive-in. When it opened in 1966, it was called the Twin (as it only had two screens then) and at the time, five other drive-ins were also here, including the Frayser Drive-in, the Lamar, and the Southland. All have gone to time. On its opening day, the Summer Drive-in had on one screen the Paul Newman drama The Prize, while the other screen played the landmark biker film The Wild Angels, clearly showing the theater’s attempt to attract both mature filmgoers as well as curious teens. It has been open ever since.
In recent years, film lovers have pushed a resurgence of the drive-in. There’s even been a rise in what’s known as the “guerilla drive-in” movement, where cars full of dedicated individuals will organize online, then show up at some random location, set up, and screen a movie in an anonymous location, like abandoned warehouses, bridge pillars, or empty drainage canals, all done illegally in true kamikaze fashion.
But truthfully, this is not the coolest innovation in the history of the drive-in craze. That honor must go to Edward Brown, who in 1948 opened the first fly-in movie theater outside Asbury, New Jersey. Positioned far from any towns, Brown placed an airfield next to the screens, and small planes would literally land and taxi into the viewing area. It could accommodate 30 airplanes, as well as 500 cars. It lasted for over ten years.
As the sun sets on the drive-in era, it is quite possible that the remaining locations will shut down and be forgotten to time. Do not miss out while there is still time. As long as one still exists, film fans of all ages should indulge in not only a thoroughly enjoyable film experience, but also a true piece of American history. If you haven’t been in a while, time to go back. If you’ve never been at all, then shame on you and your lack of cinema ambition. The Summer Drive-in is out there, waiting for you. Pack up your friends, some food, and a few drinks and park under the stars. Let the summer night envelop you, soak in some fun flicks, and take part in one of America’s last great cinema traditions.
Oh, and don’t honk your horn in there. It’s annoying.
Matt Martin has written movie reviews for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and is co-owner of Black Lodge Video, located on the corner of Cooper and Evelyn. Black Lodge is the largest video store in the eastern US and is a faithful CYCA membership sponsor.