Popular during the mid 20th century, a drive-in is an outdoor movie theater venue in which people sit with their cars parked in front of a screen to watch films. Although the number of these theaters decreased greatly during the latter part of the 20th century, the drive-ins act collectively as a unique and significant artifact of American cultural history.
- 1 Origins and History
- 2 The Golden Age of the Passion Pit
- 3 Design and Logistics
- 4 Multiplexes and the Downfall of Drive-In's
- 5 Commodifying Nostalgia: Theaters Today
- 6 Bibliography
Origins and History
Richard M. Hollingshead
The concept of the drive-in is an invention of Richard Hollingshead Jr., a native of Riverton, New Jersey. According to legend, Hollingshead’s mother was too heavy-set to comfortably fit in the seats at traditional movie theaters, and her well-meaning son wanted to find a way to accommodate her. Since Hollingshead had worked for his father’s autoparts business, he knew a fair amount about automobiles, or at least enough to spark a novel idea. Hollingshead engineered a homemade exhibition set up comprised of a sheet nailed to his garage door, a Kodak projector on top of his car, and an FM transmitter. Although primitive, it worked, and thus the concept of the drive-in was born. On May 16th of 1933, Hollingshead applied to receive a patent for his invention.
"My invention relates to a new and useful outdoor theater and it relates more particularly to a novel construction in outdoor theaters whereby the transportation facilities to and from the theater are made to constitute an element of the seating facilities of the theater...wherein the performance, such as a motion picture show or the like, may be seen and heard from a series of automobiles so arranged in relation to the stage or the screen, that the successive cars behind each other will not obstruct the view. "- Richard M. Hollingshead, in his patent application submitted on August 6, 1932. (Segrave 1)
The Golden Age of the Passion Pit
Although the legitimacy of the patent was later challenged, Hollingshead's request was quickly acquiesced. From there, he went on to open the first official drive-in movie theater in Camden, New Jersey in1933. It was an immediate success and the concept began to spread slowly across the country. In the next six years, 18 drive-ins were built across the country from Maine to California, but far more were in the works. Historically, credit is attributed solely to Hollingshead for the invention of the drive-in.
First 15 Drive-in Theaters built in the U.S.
1. Drive-In Theatre: Camden, New Jersey. June 6, 1933
2. Shankweiler's Auto Park: Orefield, Pennsylvania. April 15, 1934
3. Drive-In Short Reel Theater: Galveston, Texas. July 5, 1934
4. Pico: Los Angeles, California. September 9, 1934
5. Weymouth Drive-In Theatre: Weymouth, Massachusetts. May 6 1936
6. Starlight Auto Theatre: Akron, Ohio. Summer, 1937
7. Lynn Open Air Theater: Lynn, Massachusetts. July, 1937
8. Providence: Providence, Rhode Island. July 21, 1937
9. Miami Drive-In: Miami, Florida. February 25, 1938
10. Detroit Drive-In: Detroit, Michigan. June 2, 1938
11. Cleveland: Cleveland, Ohio. June, 1938
12. Shrewsbury Drive-In: Shrewsbury, Massachusetts. June, 1938
13. San-Val: Burbandk, California. June 10, 1938
14. Merrimack Auto Theatre: Methuen, Massachusetts. Summer, 1938
15. Valley Stream: Long Island, New York. August 10, 1938
Just three years later, that number had grown to 95 theaters that were operational throughout the states. So by 1942, although the roadside theaters were more popular than ever, the United State's entrance into World War II after Pearl Harbor sent the drive-in boom into a temporary remission. Only six theaters were built during the years 1942-1945. Populations in the rural areas were down, people were conserving, and supply rationing meant that securing the supplies necessary to either build or run a drive-in was more difficult than ever. Many of the theaters shut down for one or two years to weather the storm until the war was over. But it's possible that this temporary forced hiatus actually helped in stopping the drive-in from becoming over-saturated, which they were on pace to do before the war. But by 1946, production was booming again and the number of theaters had risen dramatically, to 155 up and running, then by 1948 that number had quintupled and there were more than 800 operational drive-in's in the U.S. The theaters played a significant role in helping rebuild the post-war economy of the country. It was a place and thing people felt good about spending their money on. Not only that, but the drive-in became a haven for families looking to reconnect and rebuild It was a place dad, mom and the kids could all enjoy. But it wasn't only families enjoying their time at the drive-in. Teenagers were also avid drive-in go-ers. Besides the fact that it was a place where they could congregate with other youths and see the latest and greatest films, the fact that you could, if you desired, stay in the privacy of your own vehicle proved very attractive to teens across the country. This is where the nickname 'passion pit' originates from. It was common for adolescents to pay their 25 or 50 cents just for the use of the parking space, and not the opportunity to sit with rapt attention and enjoy the show. This type of behavior can be seen in movies like Grease, which features teens enjoying themselves at the drive-in, free from the watchful gaze of their parents and teachers. (Segrave, list courtesy of driveintheaters.com)
The Baby Boom: Family Time at the Movies
The drive-in was a mechanism for post World War II rebuilding of the American nuclear family. It was a wholesome locale where dad, mom, child #1 and child #2 could go and spend time together, bonding, but without too much actual interaction. The drive-ins were popular in rural and suburban areas, simply because of the need for the amount of space necessary to build the theater. But the concept of the suburb is interesting because of its paradoxical components. Originally, people moved to the burbs for privacy, and to get the space that wasn’t available to them in the cities. But historically, suburbs have become hubs for community interaction. Ironically, people wanted to live their private lives, together with other people doing the same. The drive-in became analogous with that concept. The theaters allowed people to maintain a sense of security and anonymity, because they remained in the privacy of their own vehicle, but they had company of hundreds of other cars, also filled with people doing the same thing. This is part of the reason why drive-ins were such a hit. In 1948, there were close to 1000 theaters, and then along with the continuing population boom, the drive in boom continued as well. In the ten year span following 1948, over 4000 drive-ins were built, and still, Americans were flocking to them. And during all of this drive-in madness, traditional, indoor theaters suffered. Many were forced to close their doors after the new, flashy drive-ins siphoned off a large portion of their business. But even with drive-ins as popular as they were, often times they still had to wait for a movie to enjoy its run in the indoor theaters before they could start screening it. So that was one advantage that the traditional theaters had that allowed them to stay competitive. Plus the fact that indoor theaters were able to offer numerous movie times throughout the day, which drive-ins couldn't do because they needed to wait for the sun to go down to show their films. (Rhodes 1, Segrave, Sluis)
More than Just a Movie
Because of their limitations, the outdoor theaters found alternative ways to draw crowds to their venue rather than an indoor movie house. Drive-in's made a large amount of their profit from concession sales. But after they had reached their profit ceiling with popcorn, candy and sodas, the drive-in operators really became inventive. They started making a sort of carnival out of their theater. They would open hours before showtime with things like miniature train rides, petting zoo's and talent shows to entertain their patrons. Miniature golf, horse back riding, comedy performers and more could all be found at the drive-in movie. This helped in enticing parents to bring their children to the shows, because even if they might not be enthused at the thought of sitting still for 2 hours to watch a movie, they would be excited at the chance of a pony ride. The practice of having food booths also started to pop up at drive-in's around the country. Because if you were going to be there for 4 hours, you might as well have dinner, right? That is what the operators wanted you to think, so they started selling food items like pizza, fried chicken, and barbecue to satisfy their guests. When the number of attractions offered increased, so did the size of the venues. Owners began building theaters with space for over 3000 cars, which in smaller towns, might have been the entire town. (Sanders, Segrave)
Design and Logistics
The drive-in can be classified as a specific type of architecture: roadside architecture. Along with things like motels, truck stops, and gas stations, drive-in structures were built efficiently with little to no frills to minimize cost and maximize profit.
"As a whole, roadside architecture has had a tremendous impact on the American landscape, especially evident in the array of forms, images, and colors that comprise the panoramic view from our windshields." - Shannon Bell
And their designs were so simple that building them cheaply wasn’t hard to do. There are four primary components to most theaters: the screen, the projector, the sound dissemination device and/or technique, and the viewing area. The screen could be anything from a white sheet to a professional grade, synthetic piece designed specifically for the drive-in. The parking areas were arranged strategically to give each car the best view possible, and sometimes blocks or wedges were used to lift either the front or backs of cars to adjust their view or viewing angle. Concession stands were one other aspect that was a fixture at most theater. But as aforementioned, anything extra, like decoration or design elements, were added to increase profits. For instance, if a drive in’s sign featured an elaborate painting and lighting set-up, the only reason was so people on the highway would see it and exit to come check it out. Projection booths were built to house the projectors and protect them from the elements. This structure would be located behind the parking area for the cars, much like how the projection device at an indoor theater is behind and above your seats, in the back of the room. (Bell, Segrave)
Although Hollingshead's first prototype drive-in used an FM transmitter to produce the sound for the film, most early theaters used a speaker that was attached to a post. The posts, besides holding the speakers, acted as parking dividers. The space between two posts was equivalent to a parking spot. Patrons would roll down their windows, take the speaker and place it inside of their vehicle, or the speaker would hook onto the car's window, and that is how they would listen to the movie. This system worked fairly well, but audiences often had trouble with static coming through their speakers, or problems getting enough volume actually hear all the dialogue. It's no surprise that the drive-in speakers became weathered over time. People did not handle them carefully and they often suffered through unexpected bad weather. In the worst case scenario, at the end of films audience members would forget the speaker was in their car, and begin to drive away, either ripping the speaker from its cord, breaking the patron's window, or even pulling the speaker post out of the ground. Because of all the aforementioned issues, around the mid 1980's the use of low powered radio transmitters, am and fm, began to proliferate throughout the drive-in industry. So now, all someone had to do was tune their car radio to a certain frequency, and they had the film's audio coming right through their car's sound system. However this new technique of sound transmission also created the opportunity for squatters to park as close as they could to the theater where they could still catch a peek at the screen, not pay, but tune in to hear the movie. For this reason some establishments erected fences that prohibited outsiders from getting a view of the screen. (Segrave)
Drive-In Theaters on Film
Hundreds of films have scenes that feature drive-in movie theaters: American Graffiti, Lolita, Midnight Cowboy, Red Dawn, Jawbreaker, Hope Floats, Never Been Kissed, Death Proof, Cider House Rules, Back to the Future III, and many more. A good list can be found at http://www.michigandriveins.com/movies.asp. The 1978 film Grease is one of the most famous movies to prominently feature its characters going to a drive-in. Although filmed in the late 70's, the story is set in California during the late 50's. This was the era of the sock-hop, jukebox, and the drive-in. The scenes in Grease were filmed at an actual drive-in, the Pickwick Drive-In Theater, located in southern California in Burbank.
Sadly, not even this iconic theater could survive the onslaught of the 'big box stores', like Target or Bed Bath and Beyond, whose proliferation has led to the tearing down of countless structures to make way for their personalized strip centers. In 1989 the Pickwick was torn down to make way for a Staples office supply store. This type of story was not uncommon, and perhaps they helped lead to a greater consumer appreciation of the quaint theaters, because they knew their alternative was just another Target or office supply store, which they already had plenty of. But as previously discussed, drive-ins needed a large amount of space to operate, so as suburbs and towns across the country became more developed and populated, people were less and less willing to drive 20 minutes outside of town to where the drive in might have been located. (Lozano, Segrave)
Multiplexes and the Downfall of Drive-In's
With the advent of the multiplex and the megaplex (multiplex is up to 20 screens, a theater with over 20 is a megaplex), the drive-in suffered. The birth of these mega movie houses is often connected to the emergence of the 'blockbuster' film. The first of which is generally agreed upon as Steven Speilberg's Jaws, released in 1975. Once it became obvious to the major studios that a film could easily gross over 100,000,000 (the benchmark for what constitutes a blockbuster at that time), they began producing and strategizing film releases based around that model. It was all about being bigger and being better. Mutiplexes and megaplexes were the ideal venue in which to screen a blockbuster. They could house tons of people, in large, comfortable, air conditioned spaces with cushy stadium seating, free from worry about the weather or bugs. The mega theaters began to appear in various shapes and sizes around the late 60's, and were fairly common by the late 70's, and these theaters weren't limited to the suburban realm.
With vertical architecture they could easily be installed in cities. The flashy new centers housing 8, 10, 12, 16, and even up to 25 movie screens began drawing crowds by the droves. One of the primary complaints of drive-in goers was the sound quality or lack there of. With the multiplex, not only were those concerns eliminated, but audiences were getting top of the line, new sound technology like the Dolby Digital or THX systems which were like nothing you had ever heard before. The drive-in unfortunately became seen as passe, and outdated. People didn't want to get left behind, and megaplexes were the future of cinema. This is also in conjunction with the corporate takeover of industry. The small, often family owned drive-in theaters were almost no match for the large corporations like AMC who were challenging them, so unfortunately they were left with few options: allow themselves to get bought out, or stay in business and probably lose money. The drive in became the kitsch local attraction that was more of a novelty than seriously patronized business. Teenagers would still go to get their privacy, but families started transitioning over to the multiplexes.
Another way drive-in's continue to live on is through the estalishment of "guerilla drive in's. With so many theater's across the country closing down and going out of business, citizens have found ways to get their drive-in fix. The guerilla drive-in is a practice where people set up make shift drive-in theaters in temporary locations to show just one or two movies. The organizers use anything they can find to act as a screen, often times these locales include the sides of buildings or abandoned warehouses. Unless they are employing the use of their own private abandoned warehouse wall, this practice is illegal unless the organizers seek permission prior to screenings. But the practice of the guerilla drive-in proves that for devoted fans, creation of your own passion pit might be easier than you think.
Commodifying Nostalgia: Theaters Today
One of the reasons thought to have contributed to the great success of drive ins in the mid 20th century was the fact that it merged two of the most prolific inventions of the era: the automobile and the motion picture. But ironically, that concept might have contributed to the waning interest in the theaters in the 21st century. Neither the car nor the motion picture are models of technological advancement anymore and people's attentions are focused on newer and better things . And since the novelty for both films and cars has long since worn off, the novelty of an invention that combined both of those would also have worn off. A few hundred drive-in movie theaters that still exist today collectively serve to help people understand America’s cultural heritage. They even have their own official stamp. They are symbol for the golden ages of the 1950’s and 60’s in America. Although more and more of the theaters close down every year, their legacy is etched into the history books of America. No matter how small in numbers, drive-in’s will always remain an important piece of Americana. Today, the tradition of "movies in the park" that has become popular, especially in metropolitan populations, can be seen as a modern day reincarnation of the drive-in feel. Especially in big cities like New York where a drive-in theater would not be logistically possible, movies screened in public spaces like Central Park and Bryant Park help give citizens the community viewing experience that the drive-in's became famous for. Some formerly closed drive-in's have even reopened as non-profit community theaters, like Hulls Drive-In in Lexington, Virginia. (Raskin, Reader's Digest)
Now the latest trends in film technology and viewing are 3D and IMAX. It is now common for traditional theaters in rural areas to show movies in 3D, often times they are animated children's films. Movies like James Cameron's Avatar were filmed entirely in 3D, and screened not just in traditional theaters, but also in IMAX mega theaters across the country. The standard IMAX screen measures 53 feet by 72 feet, which is about 10 times larger than the conventional movie theater screen. Movies for IMAX are shot on a special camera that uses 70mm film instead of the tradition industry standard 35, and this allows them to capture incredibly detailed and rich imagery and then to not lose any of that quality on the mammoth screen. IMAX is a Canadian company and started in Ontario, but now has 286 theaters in America, and hundreds more world wide. (IMAX.com)
Currently, only one drive-in from the list of the original 15 built is still in operation:
2. Shankweiler's Auto Park: Orefield, Pennsylvania. April 15, 1934
Located in Orefield, Pennsylvania, the landmark establishment celebrated its 75th birthday in 2009. They charge $8.00 for adult tickets, and $4.00 for children's tickets, and that price is good for both movies (Shankweiler's offers a double feature each time they screen a movie). They still only charge $3.00 for a large soda, and $5.00 for a jumbo popcorn. They are open each year from April through Labor Day. It is still a family business and the actual Shankweiler descendants run the theater today. It has the honorable distinction of being "the oldest drive-in in America." (http://www.shankweilers.com)
*Photo from driveintheater.com's History section.
Bell, Shannon. "FROM TICKET BOOTH TO SCREEN TOWER AN ARCHITECTURAL STUDY OF DRIVE-IN THEATERS IN THE BALTIMORE-WASHINGTON, D.C.-RICHMOND CORRIDOR." Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture. 2003: Print.
Lozano, Carlos. "Death of a Drive-In." Los Angeles Times 08 Oct. 1989, Print.
Raskin, David. "Cinema Under the Stars." Utne No. 148 (July/August 2008) P. 22-3, 25, 148 (2008): 22-23.
"Driving in Again." Reader's Digest V. 163 (November 2003) P. 30, 163 (2003): 30.
Rhodes, Gary. Horror at the drive-in: essays in popular Americana. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, Inc., 2003. Print.
Sanders, Don, and Susan Sanders. American Drive-in Movie Theater . 2nd ed. St. Paul, MN: MBI Publishing Company, 2003. Print.
Segrave, Kerry. Drive-in theaters: a history from their inception in 1933. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, Inc., 1992. Print.
Sluis, Sarah. "75 Summers!." Film Journal International. 2008. Print.