The Wonderful World of Drive-In Gimmickry – By Charles E. Pratt Jr.

Let me tell you a little secret about the drive in theatre: for the majority of its life it was the unwanted red headed stepchild of the entertainment industry. Nothing would make cinema owners howling mad like the announcement of a new drive in being built. Hard to believe now since drive ins have fossilized and became more archeology than entertainment. But, there was a time when drive-ins ruled the silver screen.

During that brief period of time which peaked in the late 50s Drive-ins were steam rolling walk ins because everyone had automobile fever. If it could be done in your car people were tripping over themselves to do it. Another thing that fueled the drive-in craze was that drive-ins were more social occasions than movie experiences. People came to the drive in to be seen, to show off their wheels, their dates, and to have a good time with friends and family. Not surprisingly, the very thing that made the drive-in popular was also exactly thing that eventually brought fourth, at least partially, its demise.

Drive-ins slowly shifted from entertainment for the entire family which constituted many first-run types of films to the more cheaply made (and cheaper to book) B movie double and triple features. The mindset of a lot of owners and managers of drive-ins during the early sixties was “They aren’t here to watch the movie anyways” and so as the audience shifted and declined so did the desire to show quality product which brings me to the question this article addresses: When the movies suck how do you keep selling tickets? Well, in today’s almost Orwellian double-speak I would have to reply, “You add value to your already crappy product” which means throwing everything but the kitchen sink into the mix and hoping that if the kids aren’t showing up for I Bury The Living then maybe they’ll show up to feed the goats or play miniature golf or take a swim or buy pizza or listen to a Sunday Sermon or a host of other things we’ll touch on during the course of this ah..discourse.

I have to back up a bit first and say that not all of the huckstering done by drive-in owners were out of desperation. On the contrary, at first some of the wild ideas employed were borne in the heat of enthusiasm for Americas new favorite past time. Somewhere along the way though as the drive ins inertia weakened and it began plummeting from its zenith the gimmicks finally did become a last ditch effort to restore interest in a loosing proposition. Owners suddenly found themselves loosing money and unable and/or unwilling to re-invest in their business and so turned their attentions to alternate and supplemental ways of recouping their costs.

What Can I Get For Free?

Go to the walk-in theatre and what are they willing to give you for free? Nothing but maybe directions to the bathroom. The drive in though was a whole different story. In paper clippings I have from a drive in in my home town circa the 1940s it promises “a FREE tank of Gas to the first 50 customers.” Not bad, eh? Of course, gas was a whole lot cheaper then. You were also met at the gate and given a free windshield washing (which some drive-ins do to this very day)

Fly In Drive In

I’m sure you’re familiar with this story: It’s Saturday evening. You’ve been crop dusting in your single seater airplane all day. You’re tired and hankering to cut loose a bit. What’re you going to do? Well, in 1948 if you happened to be flying close to Wall Township, New Jersey you could just coast into Ed Brown’s Drive In and Fly In. Mr. Brown’s drive-in parked 500 cars and included ramps for 25 small planes. Incredibly, Brown’s airplane drive in wasn’t an isolated idea. Others cropped up in Belmar, New Jersey, Mobile, Alabama and Spearman, Texas to name a few.

A Room With a View

Ok, so you don’t own a plane. Hey, neither do I. But, let’s say you’ve been driving forever. It’s time to pull over, stretch your legs, relax, maybe even stretch out on a motel bed, turn the speakers on ..and watch a drive-in movie from the comfort of your own room! Welcome, my friends, to Movie Manor Moter Inn located in Monte Vista, Co., (also known as the Star Drive In) owned and operated by George Kelloff since its opening in 1954. If you don’t like the Kelloff there’s always the Fairlee Drive In & Motel in Fairlee, VT. I don’t know if there were more in the past but these are the only two that remain in operation.

Well, maybe you’re not a traveller. Maybe what you and your family need is some good old fashioned “old-time” religion but you don’t want to get dressed up for it. As a matter of fact, things got a little wild the night before and you’re more than slightly hung over. No worries man! Throw the kids in the backseat, leave your wife in her curlers and you can just drive in to church! Don’t even have to shake hands with the people you can’t stand. It’s perfect! Well, maybe the speakers don’t do your hangover any good but…still…no one can even see ya dodge the offering.

You may laugh at the idea of a “drive-in church” but it’s really not funny. Actually, it was quite successful-and there are even a few still around TODAY. Hey, you know Charles Schuller, the TV preacher? Robes, glasses, white hair, talks like a loving psychiatrist? Yeah, that guy in the big glass church. Guess what? He got his start as a tv preacher. No joke. And look where he is today. It just goes to demonstrate that cars were to the people of the fifties what the internet is to the people of today-a medium capable of bringing everything from knowledge to sex to entertainment to even religion to the masses.

If you’re not a pilot, a motorist, or one of the lost seeking salvation then maybe you’re one of them degenerates that likes movies about BOOBS and SEX!! Fear NOT! The 1960s are back to accomodate you! But it’s porn, man…not something many worthy citizens wanted their children or teens driving by and being exposed to. So, the question became how in the world do they show their flicks without causing motorists to wreck their cars as they’re driving by or being exposed to the considerable sins of the flesh? One solutions was the personal sized drive in theatre screen! A drive in, often built in a circle, with individual boths was constructed so that only the movie goer would get to see the treats. Great, if you like TV sized viewing but why go to the drive-in when you can just wait til the family’s gone and pull out the super 8 projector? This idea didn’t catch on too well. The picture here is taken from the Autoscope Drive In in Albuquerque, New Mexico around 1963. Drive-ins also served double duty as flea markets. Many still do on the weekends.

But, let’s get back to things going on before and during showtime. If your date isn’t thrilled about seeing “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” maybe a live magic act will get her coaxed through the gate. Magic acts before the show were a huge staple of many, many drive-ins. Some magicians made their entire living facing a sea of hood ornaments and honking horns. Such was the case with Kirma, the “mentalist” a traveling magician that frequented Tals Drive In Theater in Coffeyville, Kansas. Kirma would collect sealed envelopes with audience questions inside and then he would use his astounding esp powers to divine the questions and the answers.

Another regular drive-in activity was the petting zoo. Goats, sheep, chickens, the occasional monkey, and ducks were the big favorites. It gave kids another excuse to by…POPCORN and other concession stand treats, of course to feed the animals. Yeahhhhhhhhhhhh! Although not a big hit with the sheep, Pizza became a runaway fast food at the drive in long before there were 20 bazillion pizza hutts sitting on every corner of the street.

Now, who could talk about drive-in gimmicks and not mention one of the most obvious and successful ploys of cinema under stars? Naturally, I’m referring to PLAYGROUNDS, minature golf courses, float boat ponds, and anything else to get them rugrats out of the car and begging for moma and daddy’s money. Most float boats and miniture golf courses are a memory but playgrounds remain to this day.

Finally, and possibly my favorite under the stars movie gimmick is the “do it yourself” back yard drive in–without the driving in of cars. Yes, you too can bring back the faded days of cinema under the stars glory by building your own outdoor theatre, just like my friend Chris Wren did at his parents home in Dearing, Kansas. For 2 bucks you can watch an old Bela Lugosi film, eat a bucket of home made popcorn, and kiss your girlfriend without even leaving the city limits.

Thank God for drive-ins and their whacky gimmicks. They’re a constant reminder of what some of us already know-it’s not REALLY about the movie. It’s about the FUN!