2 September 2008

Movies Under the Stars

If you remember drive-ins, you’re smiling already. And the best news is they are not all gone and definitely not forgotten.

Having watched movies at drive-ins all over the United States in the course of researching a book about the subject, Susan Sanders has seen her share of cinematic monsters. Malevolent aliens looking to conquer earth. Skulking swamp creatures preying upon unsuspecting picnickers. Giant wasps battling the military.

But the creepiest beast she ever encountered at a drive-in was many years ago when, as a small-town girl from Temple, Texas, she went out on a date with a boy she remembers today as simply “The Octopus.”

“He wanted to do everything but watch the movie,” Sanders says. “It was like he had eight arms. He drove a late-’50s Dodge with bench seats, and by the end of the evening, I was pressed against the passenger door just to escape his reach.”

Sanders’ happy-hands experience is one of those varied memories that bind generations of mobile moviegoers to that once-great American pastime known as going to the drive-in. It’s on the same list as the night you were busted trying to sneak in while squirreled away in the trunk of your friend’s 1958 Chevy Impala, or that time your dad ripped the speaker out of its post as he absentmindedly pulled away without checking his window.

Nosy ushers, pesky bugs, starry nights, noisy heaters, sudden rainstorms, washed-out screens at sunset, dancing chili dogs and talking boxes of popcorn – for the last 75 years, they’ve all been part of our collective drive-in experience.

Open-air cinema

The first drive-in theater, which opened June 6, 1933, in Camden, New Jersey, was the brainchild of Richard Hollingshead Jr., who sought to emulate the success of the drive-in restaurant in America’s increasingly mobile society. According to an article posted on Drive-ins.com, which features an online searchable database of almost 5,000 drive-ins, Hollingshead’s motive was to sell more automotive products. After all, that is what he did for a living back in the 1930s. The article theorized the best way to accomplish this was to establish a place where people could park their cars, enjoy a meal and watch a movie outdoors.

Outdoor movie theaters remained a novelty through World War II, with only about 100 in operation. An entertainment magazine referred to them – and their customers – as “ozoners,” a slang term used to describe an outdoor movie theater in which the patrons view a film from their automobile. But the postwar baby boom and cheap land prices fueled a surge in drive-ins, with the industry reaching its peak of nearly 5,000 facilities in 1958. By then the ozoners were being called “passion pits,” a testament to the ubiquitous steamed windows parents and preachers loved to warn about in their sermons.

Going to the drive-in at Wamesit, Massachusetts, in the 1950s was a wondrous thing, Norbert Pestona recalls in a memoir for a local historical society. He writes that, in addition to an evening of entertainment, such excursions also produced “a culinary adventure because my dad thought it would be neat to give my mom the night off from preparing a meal by filling a Thermos with beans and wrapping a few hot dogs in tin foil and putting them on the manifold of the engine to cook them.”

Unfortunately, it was a short trip and the hot dogs were only lukewarm.

Reliving the heyday

Drive-ins suffered a dramatic decline in the 1970s and 1980s, as the sudden convergence of several challenges overwhelmed many operators.

Urban sprawl caused real estate prices to explode, and the introduction of daylight saving time took away a precious hour of darkness. Rental fees for first-run films soared, while the advent of the VCR allowed many former customers to watch a new release in the comfort and convenience of their living room.

Although the heyday of the drive-in has passed, there are still about 400 operating in the United States (and at least another 121 elsewhere around the world), fueled in part by a resurgence of car clubs holding cruise nights with their vintage vehicles.

The Cherry Bowl Cruisers, for example, meet two or three times each summer at the Cherry Bowl Drive-In (cherrybowldrivein.com) in Honor, Michigan, which opened in 1953 and is still going strong.

Club member Vicki Sager says the meets bring back memories of being in high school. “The guy I dated at the time had a ’56 Pontiac and my good friend dated a guy with a ’61 Buick – one of those big, old boats,” she says. “We’d always go on ‘Buck Night,’ when it was only a dollar per car – no matter how many people were crammed in the car.”

Encouragingly, more than 20 of the operating drive-ins have actually added screens since 1990. Like the aforementioned meal of hot dogs and beans, they offer a cheap, but filling, night out, with varying expenditures of gas.

Carl and Ruth Stewart operated the Starlite Drive-In (starlitebloomington.com) in Bloomington, Indiana, for nearly a half-century. “The formula for a successful drive-in really hasn’t changed,” says Carl, who sold the business six years ago. “Back when we started in 1955, our bread and butter were young families with small children. It’s still true today.” As proof, the single-screen Starlite continues to thrive under new ownership, offering family fare at reasonable prices.

Many drive-ins that closed have been torn down. Part of the reason is that, from an architectural perspective, the typical drive-ins built in the later decades were not terribly interesting or attractive or thought to be historically significant. There are exceptions, however.

One must-see theater is the completely restored 66 Drive-In (66drivein.com), located on old Route 66 in Carthage, Missouri, which retains its original neon sign and glass-block ticket booth. Another is Hull’s Drive-In Theatre (hullsdrivein.com) in Lexington, Virginia, which is the only nonprofit, community-owned outdoor theater in the country. As they have been doing ever since the place opened in 1950, customers still flock to the neatly trimmed grassy slope that gives everyone a wonderful view of that night’s feature.

According to Sanders, Becky’s Drive-In Theatre (beckysdi.com) in Berlinsville, Pennsylvania, is “possibly America’s best drive-in experience.” The second generation of the Beck family operates the drive-in, which is one of the oldest family run outdoor theaters in the country at 62 years and counting. The laid-back family atmosphere includes lawn seating and pony rides for the kiddies.

Wherever its location, whatever movies it may be showing, it’s clear that a principal driving force in any successful drive-in is nostalgia. They’re a piece of the past that we long for, took for granted and now strive to recreate.

“I think the owners and customers are all yearning for a happier time,” Sanders says. “That mix of nostalgia and affordable entertainment will probably always keep drive-ins part of our cultural landscape.”
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To see this article in its original format, view the pdf version of the Fall 2008 issue of Hagerty magazine.

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