Drive Ins Fade to Black – By Charles E. Pratt Jr.

over the country lights are slowly fading out on the American drive-in
movie theatre. Tarnished and busted marquee signs, crumbling concession
stands, and dilapidated screens are mere relics now, fossils that
hardly hint of a bygone age when outdoor theatres nearly killed walk-in
pictures in the battle of popular entertainment. Drive-in theatres
arrived on the scene in 1931 when Richard Hollingshead, Jr., an
employee in his father’s auto parts store, decided to venture into
business for himself. Hollingshead wanted to combine his love of the
automobile with his passion for motion pictures. Hollingshead
experimented with parking cars on ramps and projecting movies on a
sheet tied between two trees in his back yard. He also wrestled with
projecting sound so that everyone could hear the picture. In 1933
Hollingshead applied for and was granted the patent for the first
drive-in theatre. The drive-in wasn’t an immediate success, however.
Three years after it opened, Hollingshead’s drive-in in Camden, New
Jersey went dark. Many people scoffed at Hollingshead’s invention until
the end of World War II in 1945. Suddenly, gas rations were lifted, the
economy was booming and people were itching to get out and have fun.
Like wildfire, drive-ins leapt up all over the country. People were
happy to do an activity where their kids could come in their pajamas
and nobody had to leave the car accept to go get a snack. The fifties
deepened the country’s love affair with automobiles and that helped the
drive-in peak in popularity. The sixties, however, brought about
changes in the family unit. More kids were working and doing their own
things aside from the typical family functions. Drive-Ins became better
known as "passion pits" and hang outs for teenagers. Attendance slipped
and distributors made it more and more difficult for theatre owners to
play "first run" or "A" list movies. The end of the sixties and the
early 70’s brought about the beginning of the end of an era for
drive-ins. In desperation, theatre owners began trying to shore up
business for their drive-ins by playing soft and hard core porno films.
A wicked backlash from the public left operators in a panic and soon
they were once again trying to appeal to "the family" instead of just
teenagers. But, there were even more problems: the eighties introduced
big strides in film projection technology and comfort, as well as
Cineplex’s that offered mall shoppers five, ten, or fifteen different
movies to choose from at once. In addition, a new device known as the
VCR was letting people enjoy movies in the comfort of their homes
instead of their cars. Drive-ins lagged way behind in film projection.
Owners weren’t about to sink more money into an already faltering
enterprise. So, drive-in movies grew dimmer and dimmer. Mono sound
blared incomprehensibly from many a 40-year-old speaker system. People
stopped caring about the drive-ins and flocked to video rental stores
and their local malls to see movies in clarity and comfort. The
nineties nearly cemented the drive-in’s demise with skyrocketing land
values. Many drive-in owners and operators threw up their hands in
surrender and sold the land the drive-in sat on to urban developers and
places such as Wal-Marts and the like. Today, the few drive-ins left
have enjoyed a temporary stay of execution due to the many people
living old enough to be nostalgic about drive-ins. Of course, those
people won’t save them entirely. But, it’s nice that they are there.
Drive-ins have had a long and very influential pull on popular
entertainment. The very things that made drive-in theatres great,
eventually caused its extinction. Unfortunately, rising land values,
the advancements made in sound and projection technology, and the
advent of home entertainment have all but fossilized the once mighty
drive-in theatre industry.

Due to rural expansion land values skyrocketed, causing Drive-ins to be
more money sold than operating. One reason for the demise of drive-in
theatres is the
ever-rising cost of land. According to John Hiett, "Eighty three
percent of the nation’s drive-in theatres have closed in the past forty
years." In an article entitled "Old-Fashioned Drive-Ins May Be Set For
Revival," back in the late 40’s and early 50’s when most drive-ins were
built, land outside of town was inexpensive but as towns and cities
became larger and grew up around the drive-ins, land values sky
rocketed. Urban development, according to an article in Maclean’s, has
caused drive-ins to be worth more closed than open ("Distinct
Drive-Ins"). Drive-ins are being bought out left and right by shopping
malls and discount stores like Wal-Mart and K-Mart who are hungry to
expand their businesses and their parking lots. According to Kerry
Segrave, in 1947 the Morris Plains Drive-In in Parsippany, NJ, was
built on 14 acres of land for 10, 750. In 1981 the owner sold the
drive-in for 1.25 million dollars.Most drive-in owners can’t resist the
temptation to make a substantial profit on a business that may only be
marginally successful in its open season. Gustave Allmacher, the owner
of many drive-ins in New York stated, "My father use to say that a
drive-in was a business you went into to make a living while real
estate values went up". Drive-ins, once the cutting edge of cinema
technology, soon became more novelty than innovation. The second reason
for the demise of drive-in theaters is the substantial increase of
cinema technology. According to Don Sanders, "Drive-ins are baby boomer
relics." Cinema technology in regular walk-in theatres has advanced so
much with digital sound and clarity of projection while the traditional
drive-in theatre has remained the same, technically speaking, for over
50 years. Drive-ins were considered technologically advanced in their
early days. According to an article entitled "Ozoners" drive-ins were
built with cars being the primary focus and sound and picture
technology being a secondary concern., drive-ins went from cutting edge
entertainment, hawking novelties like car heaters that attached to your
windows to being a novelty in itself in about 30 years. Don Sanders
points out that when cars began to shrink in the sixties and seventies
so did the level of comfort in the automobile. While theaters across
the country turned into megaplexes and strides in technology brought
about digital sound and projection, the drive-ins continued to limp
along with blown speakers sitting on poles. Drive-ins eventually tried
to bridge the gap in technology by installing low powered FM broadcast
stations that would transmit the sound of a movie to a car stereo or
portable FM receiver. The AM and FM broadcasts pleased a lot of people
but the sound was still of significantly less quality than the
megaplexes. An article entitled "The Screens of Summer", points out
that although mulitplexs are more expensive than drive-ins, people are
still willing to pay more for better sounding movies and higher quality
of projection (Patient). Kerry Segrave explains that drive-ins tried to
multiplex like cinemas in shopping malls but due to their limited
technology and lack of money, drive-in multiplexes didn’t catch on
(190). Another stumbling block for drive-in theatre owners was simply
daylight savings time. The megaplexes and walk-ins could show movies
morning, afternoon, and evening. Paul Lukas states in his article "The
Last Picture Shows" that daylight savings time served a role in making
drive-ins obsolete because in some areas the first feature didn’t begin
until after 9:30pm. Don Sanders and Susan Sanders calls attention to
the fact that nine-thirty on a weeknight was really late for the kids
who had school and the parents who had work. Also, daylight savings
time hurt the concession stand because the first movie was shown well
after suppertime and most people were full from supper or didn’t want
to bog their stomachs down that late with greasy foods.
Elizabeth McKeon and Linda Everett explains that in 1949 drive-in
owners petitioned congress to not implement daylight savings time but
their requests were unsuccessful. Daylight savings time helped push the
drive-ins further towards being "seasonal", which is to say that the
drive-in would close in the winter months and be open in the summer
time. Kids were out of school and could stay up late and parents could
always attend on the weekends.

Home entertainment one-upped the Drive-in motto "come as you are" by
providing a whole spectrum of choice entertainment to consumers who
didn’t need to leave the comforts of their own front rooms to be casual
and entertained. The third and arguably biggest reason why drive-ins
are now the dinosaurs of the cinema age is the introduction of home
entertainment. According to Larry Wallberg, in his article entitled
"Drive-In, Conk Out", "In the age of DVD’s, I doubt whether it’s a
thrill any more for kids to be able to watch a movie while they’re in
their pajamas. But back in the 1950’s my sister and I considered it a
treat to have mom and dad throw coats over our pj’s and take us to the
drive-in”. Home entertainment is a wide canopy under which many things
abide. In relation to the extinction of the drive-in home entertainment
chiefly means cable vision, VCR’s, satellites, video games, and DVD
players, in roughly that order. The big selling point of drive-ins was
that it was inexpensive, comfortable family entertainment. Television
in the fifties and sixties went one better by offering even cheaper
entertainment to people who didn’t even need to leave their comfy sofas
to be entertained. Maggie Valentine points out that in the middle
sixties, theatre owners tried unsuccessfully to have drive-in patrons
reject cable, which was then called pay TV. According to the book
"Drive-In Movie Memories", episodic television caused many adult
drive-in patrons to stay home to watch their favorite television shows
(Don Sanders and Susan Sanders). The sixties brought to head another
problem that drive-in owners and managers had battled for years.
Distributors made it nearly impossible for drive-ins to play quality
movies. According to Kerry Segrave drive-in theatres were forced to
show second run features and cheap exploitation films instead of
popular first run hit films like the walk-ins showed. Essentially, by
this time, drive-ins were deep into making their reputations as passion
pits and the movies on the big screens were the same quality of shtick
now seen at one in the morning at home on cable TV. Drive-in owners
felt desperation biting their heels. Kerry Segrave goes on to say that
families who were once the target audiences of the drive-ins fell off
even further in attendance during the late sixties and early seventies
because theater owners began running soft and sometimes hard core
porno’s to keep their gates open. In the 80’s the VCR exploded on the
consumer market and just nearly dealt the drive-ins their death blow.
Now movie selections were just wide open. John Dunphy says that most
experts agree that VCR’s and satellites gave viewers a much greater
choice of movies to pick from. According to an article in Time, video
stores carried everything from direct to video titles (which were the
successors to drive-in second features) to classics like Lawrence of
Arabia (Corless). Kerry Segrave reveals that drive-in critic, Joe Bob
Briggs, described late night cable movies and direct to video titles as
"Ozoner fare that can basically be described as blood, breasts, and
beasts." (185). According to an article entitled "The Comfort Lies in
All the Things You Can Do" in between cablevision and VCR’s, drive-ins
also felt the shockwave of a new boom called Atari. Pong, Asteroids,
Pac-Man, Space Invaders, and a slew of other games began eroding away
kid’s money that maybe had been used for drive-in movies previously
(Goldsmith). Satellite and DVDs with their sophisticated sound and
picture just drove the nails in the coffin for drive-ins.

Just like so many things that have came and gone before drive-in
theatres there is no one absolute reason for its demise. It’s a
combination of many things. Drive-ins have been around for 70 years.
They’ve had their time under the stars. Land values have shot through
the roof. The love affair with automobiles has changed drastically.
Comfort has gotten out of the car and into the living room. Projection
quality and sound quality have evolved to a whole new plane. Many
generations have come and gone. Choices in home entertainment are
staggering. And, the drive-ins time is over. It’s just as simple as
that. All good things must end. Drive-ins have experienced a comeback
of sorts in popularity over the last 5 years or so but it’s a death
gasp, a last rattling of the dinosaur from yesterday. As drive-ins fade
to dark all around the country we commit them to our memory where the
things we treasure the most live forever.