Ah, summer. In simpler times, say the 1950s and 1960s, there were certain symbols of the season practiced almost universally in America – family vacations, trips to the beach or lake, backyard barbeques, Fourth of July fireworks and drive-in movies. Drive-ins were unique entertainment venues that took us from being kids stretched out in the backs of station wagons to adventurous teenagers goofing with friends or pursuing romance and finally to savvy adults looking for a good entertainment value in a night out for the family. Enterprising walk-in theater owners countered the trend by installing and advertising air conditioning to lure patrons inside, but this idea was no match for the cultural experience of the drive-in.
Earlier this summer the drive-in celebrated its 76th birthday. Contrary to some stories, there is still a good business at drive-ins, and not just in swap meets and flea markets. The creation of the drive-in is credited to Richard M. Hollingshead, Jr., a New Jersey manufacturer who experimented with the concept at home in 1932, then opened the first drive-in theater in Pennsauken, NJ on June 6, 1933. He received a U. S. patent for his invention but the certification was later rescinded by a federal court. Industry legend has it that Hollingshead’s motivation for the idea was an overly plump mother who could not fit comfortably into theater seats of the time.
Drive-in theaters began to spring up across the nation in the 1930s, and then rapidly increased in number after World War II. There were solid sociological reasons for this. First, GIs who experienced drive-ins near bases where they served took the idea back to their communities. Second, parents of “baby boomers” seized the opportunity to have a night out without a getting a baby sitter or handling noisy toddlers at indoor venues. The increased number of private cars in the 1950s led teenagers and young adults to take dates to drive-in movies.
The number of drive-in theaters peaked in 1958 at 4,063 sites with almost 5,000 screens (multiple screens theaters were starting to be used at both indoor and outdoor theaters). At the same time, the number of indoor theaters was declining. Not only were there more screens, there were also bigger drive-ins, the largest of these accommodating 2,000 to 3,000 cars. To augment the family experience and encourage customers to arrive earlier, operators set up playgrounds and picnic tables – even pony rides, petting zoos and miniature golf courses on site.
As to the movies themselves, there has been much vacillation in program choices since the British comedy Wives Beware premiered under the stars for that first New Jersey audience. D. Edward Vogel is a drive-in operator and volunteer spokesperson for the United Drive-In Theatre Operators Association. He points out that drive-ins have always had the opportunity to bid on first run movies, but the competition for this product was fierce. Samuel Arkoff founded American International Pictures (AIP) in the drive-in heyday to get product out faster and cheaper. The AIP story is a pop culture topic in its own right, but the producer/distributor’s product line led a string of “B” movies that began a trend toward exploitation and “sexploitation” fare at the drive-ins.
In the late 1970s, Smokey and the Bandit, the first of the Hal Needham-Burt Reynolds movies, with an appropriate theme of car chases and hijinx, brought drive-ins back into first-run competition according to Vogel. The trend has continued through today. There have even been occasions where operators have invited celebrities to open their movies at drive-ins to position them alongside walk-in theater premieres.
Next up: food, architecture, birthing and Grease.