At the Drive-In: The Short History on Drive-In Movie Theaters
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09:48 18 May 2020
It’s 1960 and you have nothing better to do than go see a movie. Instead of sitting on uncomfortable theater seats, you and your sweetheart decide to go see a drive-in movie. You've most likely heard your grandparents talk about this exact same scenario before.
For a while, drive-in movie theaters were the talk of the town. It allowed you to bring your whole family to a movie without worrying about your children disturbing anyone when the sugar rush from the soda pop sat in.
So, if drive-ins are so great, why aren’t there many of them around today? Keep reading to find out what ended them along with how they got started in the first place.
The era of the drive-in movie began with a car salesman by the name of Richard Hollingshead. Back in the day, the theater seats weren't the cushy recliners that they are today. They were small and made of wood which made them quite uncomfortable.
Seeing how difficult it was for his mother to sit through a movie in these hard chairs, Hollingshead devised a way to make the experience better for her. The answer was drive-ins.
Hollingshead began to experiment with different methods in his own driveway. He pinned a screen to trees and placed a projector on the hood of his car. He put a stereo behind the screen for audio purposes.
Before he could get a real design nailed down, he had to consider car spacing. How many cars can fit on a property until there are too many for everyone to enjoy the movie?
There was a lot of trial and error involved. All of his hard work paid off in 1933 when he got the patent to start up his first drive-in theater.
The Drive-In Opens
On May 16, 1933, Hollingshead opened up the first drive-in movie theater in Camden, New Jersey. Theprice to get in was only 25 cents a car with an additional 25 cents per person. Nobody paid more than a dollar for a movie.
The first theater used a technique known as directional sound to display audio. It consisted of three speakers next to the movie screen. As you can imagine, this was great for cars in the front but not so great for those in the back.
The dialog also was a bit out of sync from the audio, the further back you were parked.
This problem was later solved by speakers that attached to car windows. The idea kicked off soon after that.
The First Drive-In Movie
The first film to ever play in a drive-in movie theater was a flick by the name of Two White Arms, also known as Wives Beware. It was about a man who grew tired of his marriage.
As an out, he faked amnesia and began to have affairs with other women. A surprising plot considering the marketing point for drive-ins was "The entire family is welcome, no matter how loud your kids are".
The Drive-In Boom
The sad truth was that Hollingshead couldn't turn a profit from his invention so he sold it. After selling, the idea blew up and thousands of drive-ins began popping up all over the place. The largest one was in New York.
Its parking lot could hold well over two-thousand cars. It had a seat viewing area that could hold over a thousand people. There was a full restaurant and a play area for children to go while their parents enjoyed the film as well.
You see the stereotype of teenagers sitting at a drive-in in the media all the time. It's a stereotype for a reason as they became a pretty popular date spot.
When the press found out the nature of what some couples were doing at the drive-in they tried to turn people against them. This had the opposite effect. It only made them much more popular.
The End of an Era
Drive-ins weren't as profitable as indoor theaters for two big reasons. Indoor theaters could function no matter what time of day it was. Drive-in theaters could only show movies at night.
Drive-ins couldn't function during bad weather conditions. Indoor movies could.
To try and rack up more ticket sales, managers began showing slasher flicks and other more mature titles along with the B movies they were showing before. Granted, some managers elected to show major films but for the most part, drive-ins were dedicated to B movies.
Branching out saved the industry for a while but with the invention of the VCR, they lost their pizzazz. Soon, it became more profitable for managers to sell their large and expensive pieces of land to those wanting to build housing complexes and strip malls.
During the crash, thousands of drive-in theaters closed but not all of them did. There are still around three to four hundred of them left hanging around various areas in the US.
They see a surprising amount of business. Many people flock to them for the nostalgia factor. Some people and organizations will rent a drive-in movie screen to throw a party.
The concept is also gaining traction in China. As you can see, the demand is there but whether we experience another boom or not remains to be seen.
Let's Go to the Movies
Back in the 60s and 70s, going to a drive-in movie was the best way to spend a Friday night. People flocked there to enjoy cheap dates and family outings. Still, all good things must come to an end.
Over time they lost their appeal but there's still hope. With a few still lingering around maybe one day they'll pick up again.
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