The Restaurant, Playground, Pony Ride, Passion Pit, Swap Meet, Movie Theater: History of Drive-Ins, Part II

September 22nd, 2009 in Pop Culture History by Jay Wertz

Part I of this blog on drive-ins reminds us that this type of movie theater, now more that 76 years old, is alive and well in America. It should also be noted that the drive-in movie experience can be enjoyed year-round. In the more temperate areas of the country a number of theaters operate all year long. In the colder regions of the U. S. and Canada some operators have provided loan of in-car heaters for many years. When drive-ins were at their peak of popularity, some had elaborate outdoor heating and cooling systems built into their parking areas.

Almost from the time Richard M. Hollingshead, Jr. opened the first drive-in theater in Camden, now Pennsauken, NJ in 1933, food became as important to operators as the movies. The center of non-movie activity at the drive-in is the snack bar. Frugal movie-goers including my own parents would prepare picnics or snacks for the drive-in at home. That was hardly satisfactory, however, for kids who craved real drive-in goodies such as hot dogs, popcorn and fountain drinks. To encourage patrons to visit the snack bar, drive-in operators created “snipes” to run during intermission—animated movie shorts that featured the food offered for sale. Some of the more creative operators came up with signature delicacies. A Texas drive-in created a signature sandwich—the Chihuahua—inspired by the Lone Star state’s love for everything chili. Some drive-ins also had full service restaurants on site.

Art imitates life frequently and the drive-in movie theater offered potential story lines that would later appear in movies on those same drive-in screens. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders (1983) had a drive-in scene filmed at a Route 66 drive-in theater in Tulsa which still operates today. In Grease (1978) Danny (John Travolta) pours his heart out singing “Sandy” while sitting on the playground equipment at a drive-in. Behind him on the screen is the classic “dancing hot dog countdown clock,” an animation created by the oldest snipe producer, Filmack. Fair or unfair, media portrayals of young lovers making out at the drive-in frequently became movie scenes. Such was the case in a truly classic “B” movie, Drive-In Massacre (1977). Other films with drive-in story lines and scenes include Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets (1968), with Boris Karloff, and Back to the Future, Part III (1990).

I am not alone in the appreciation of popular culture architecture. To me the screen tower at the Lincoln Drive-in on US 30 outside York, Pennsylvania was an endearing landmark. April Wright, producer of Going Attractions, an upcoming documentary celebrating the drive-in, has also studied these free-standing viewing structures:

It’s gone now, but one of the most unique was the Gatiot in Detroit which had a giant waterfall that cascaded all the way down the front of the screen tower. And of course there were many that had amazing neon murals on the back, but none of those remain. A huge tower, with the original screen intact behind a deteriorating Cinemascope screen that was added later, is in Waco, Texas at the Circle Drive-in. The site has another use now, but everything from the drive-in remains. Regarding open drive-ins, a very interesting one is the Admiral Twin in Tulsa, Oklahoma (previously mentioned). It’s a double screen drive-in (one tower, a screen on each side) which is rare, and it has historical status because it’s one of the largest standing all-wood structures in the U.S.

There are many other facts and oddities that give drive-ins their endearing place in American history. April reports, “A baby was born in at the Skyview Cruise-in Theatre in Lancaster, Ohio about two years ago. Mom went into labor during the movie and baby was on the way, so by the time EMTs arrived they delivered the baby there in the car.” No mention if Look Who’s Talking (1989) was showing that night. Some clever operators provided small runways for patrons to fly in. Drive-ins began to hold religious services on Sundays – an idea that no doubt influenced the first drive-in church in San Dimas, California, complete with post mounted car speakers.

For those who still want to enjoy the drive-in experience, theaters remain open in every state but Alaska according to U.D.I.T.O.A., which disseminates information to potential new drive-in operators. Over the years drive-ins have also popped up abroad. Drive-in nostalgia remains strong with books, paintings, websites, songs from such diverse artists as The Beach Boys, David Bowie, Nat King Cole and Gwen Stafani; and historical movies including Going Attractions and After Sunset: The Life & Times of the Drive-In Theater (1995) with Joe Bob Briggs, America’s only drive-in movie critic.

As long as people have cars and a desire to see movies in public places, drive-ins will remain a vibrant entity in popular culture.

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