Of all the innovations devised for the automobile, one of the most charming, and American, may have been for when it’s parked – the drive-in theater.
Whatever accomplishments the drive-in theater’s inventor – Richard Hollingshead, a New Jersey chemical manufacturer – may have made in his principal occupation, he proved a visionary by first reconceiving the windshield as a frame for a movie screen. That allowed decades of movie magic to unfold in the open air, a slice of Americana firmly entrenched in countless memories and still freshly minted every summer.
Conceived at a time when Americans were having a grand love affair with their automobiles, the movies were just one of a number of things people opted to experience with their cars. So was eating; hence, the proliferation of drive-in restaurants. You also could attend church – or a funeral – from your car seat. Or drive into liquor stores and up to banking windows. Driving was a focal point of the American lifestyle.
So the nostalgia of drive-in theaters captivating the imagination today is of no surprise. An indication that they still do was the Google® doodle for the drive-in theater’s 79th anniversary in 2012. Baby boomers remember their childhoods at drive-ins, and they want to share those moments with their families.
What Happened to the Drive-In Theaters?
The basic requirements for a drive-in are simple: a lot for parking and a screen large enough to be visible from all positions within it. Early experiments with speakers large enough to transmit to an entire parking lot quickly found foes in the neighborhood. The theaters soon turned to individual speakers or low-capacity AM frequencies to transmit sound.
The lure of taking in a movie from the front seat – or pursuing activities that parents wouldn’t approve of in the back – proved irresistible, and drive-ins grew to number a full third of all American theaters by the late 1950s. The sky, that flickering backdrop, and the degree to which the vehicle seat could recline proved the foundation of many an evening’s memory.
These golden days did not last. From a peak of 4,000, now fewer than 400 American drive-in theaters remain.
The trouble? The economics of drive-ins is surprisingly terrible. They rely upon the cycles of nature for their viability. Drive-ins have screenings only at night; they depend on darkness even during the longest days of the year.
Both the rise of the multiplex – multiple theaters under one roof, each of which projects many showings on a single screen instead of a drive-in’s one or, at best, two (plus a cartoon!) – and of suburban land value simply rendered most drive-ins unprofitable. And, of course, the rise of television reduced the need to leave the house for any sort of entertainment.
Many drive-ins held on, however, only recently to encounter recently their most dire threat of all – not developers or DVDs, but digital projection. Most distributors have announced their intention to switch entirely to digital projection, which is bringing the age of film canisters slowly to a close. Paramount became the first major American studio to do so, late in 2013.
The vast majority of drive-ins lack digital projectors, and their cost – approximately $70,000 per apparatus, not to mention other costs involved in sheltering them from weather and temperature shifts – is a tremendous burden for their operators. Many have launched campaigns to raise the money for projector conversion, and some have closed.
That which has brought the most peril to drive-ins – their independent ownership, without the insulation of chain multiplex deals – is also the source of their wonderful range of character. If there’s ever been a time to go to a drive-in theater to support a venerable American institution, this is it. Your reward will be to see a movie, perhaps two, and likely get an inimitable experience out of the deal.