Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Drive-in Theaters - An American Tradition

When was the last time you were at a drive-in theater?

I love drive-ins! All through childhood I loved going to them. In fact, all the most memorable movies I ever saw in my youth were always at drive-in theaters. From "Dr. Zhivago", to "The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly", to "Star Wars".
There was something magical and fun about the drive-in theater experience. The snack bar building, all the cars lined up facing the screen, some with 10 kids hanging out of the windows, lying on the hoods and roofs in sleeping bags, the lawn chairs in front of the car and the cooler in between them - like a night-time picnic. The cars with young lovers inside and fogged-up windows. People on the way to the snack bar trying to sneak a peek into the cars with fogged up windows.... The little playground up front under the screen where kids got to play with new kids, and you get to throw a frisbee around. The all-nighter drive-ins where people stay till dawn watching movies. I remember some great parties we had as teenagers at those all-nighters. The cool cars, the vans, the old classic cars, even motorcycles. The night air in the summertime. The starry night. Pizza and coke, and junk food, the cozyness of your private little place - your car, while at a theater.
The kids come in their jammies, with blankets and pillows so they can fall asleep when they've seen enough and when they feel like it, and Mom and Dad can watch the second feature - because you know - there was ALWAYS a second feature included in the price. It was pretty economical. Usually, there was a one car price. So your friends could come and see the movie for free - as long as they could somehow fit in the car. Some snuck in in the trunk. The teenage drive-in shows where two couples would be making out in the same car at the same time. One in the front seat and one in the back seat. It was just all fun. Just pure fun for everyone at every age.
I miss them. Sure, today's theaters are closer, easier to get to, big screens, better sound, not exposed to the elements - it never rains inside the average theater, and they are usually close by a huge shopping mall, so you can get some shopping in in the same trip. BUT - I sure do miss the drive-ins.

Where did they originate? Who invented the drive-in? Well, glad you asked. Have a seat. The Drive-In Theater was originally invented in 1933 by Richard M Hollingshead Jr. of New Jersey. It was the depression era. It was a sad time, and it wasn't getting better after a few years like it usually did coming out of recessions. America usually goes to war to pull out of economic slumps - like now with Iraq to pull us out of the recent recession that started in April, 2000, and the Gulf War which brought us out of the last recession from 1990, and you can follow them back through each decade. But it took WWII to end the great depression. A bigger, longer war, with more extended spending, to get out of such a deep and long depression. And that was a while in coming, so the depression dragged on. (Ah but this is another topic for another time...)

People had no money for more expensive entertainment, and so they loved to go to the movies to escape the hard times of that decade. But when they went to the movies, it created logistical problems. The kids went to matinees in the afternoons, and the parents got dressed up for the theater in the evenings. So they went at separate times, mom had to find a babysitter, Dad had to dress-up after working a long day, they had to also find and pay for parking, since most theaters were on main streets downtown with little parking available. A drive-in solved all those problems. Kids come along, they wear their pajamas if they want, mom and dad don't have to dress up, no babysitter, no parking fees or problems. It was a great idea whose time had come.

Rich H started experimenting in his driveway with a 1928 projector. he tried parking cars behind each other and experimented until he figured out how far apart the cars had to be, and how high the front wheels had to be jacked up for each row of cars to be able to see over the tops of the cars in front of them. That is all part of what he patented in 1933. The patent was later rejected in 1950. But meanwhile, he and his financial backers, opened the very first Drive-In Movie Theater June 6, 1933 in Camden, New Jersey. Admission was 25 cents for the car, 25 cents for each person, and a maximum of $1.00 per car. By April of 1934, a second one opened in Orefield, Pennsylvania, and then the third opened in Galveston, Texas in July, 1934. Then, 2 years later a flurry of openings started and the number of drive-in theaters continued to rise until a peak in 1958 of 4,063 theaters across the country. After that, it stayed roughly stable until the 1970's when it started to decline in favor of indoor theaters.

There were different types of Drive-in theaters, too. Some large, some small, and some unusual ones. I used to go to one that had three big screens, and each screen had it's own parking area, but when you went to the concession building, you got a look at the movies playing on the other two screens as well. Some cars would switch from one to another if they liked the other movie better. But there were some bigger ones than that. There was one in Copiague, New York, that stood on 28 acres, held 2500 cars, had indoor seating/viewing area for 1200 people, a cafeteria, a full restaurant with sit-down dinners, a playground, and a shuttle train to take people between their cars and the concession/restaurant buildings. There was an even bigger one in Lufkin, Texas that held 3,000 cars. (There's always a bigger version of everything in Texas). Then there were tiny ones like one in Harmony, Pennsylvania, that only held 50 cars. There was one that sat right on the border between Massachusetts and New Hampshire. The border ran right through the concession stand, so if you were late getting back to your car with the food, you could always say that the line ran all the way back into the next state….

There were even a few “Fly-In Drive-ins”. The first of these was built by an ex-Navy pilot named Ed Brown at Asbury Park, New Jersey in 1948. It had an airstrip next to the drive-in, and pilots could land there, and taxi into position in the last row to watch the movie. Then, when the show was over, a jeep was available to tow them back out to the airfield to take off again. Then there was the Autoscope Drive-in in Albuquerque, NM, which had 260 screens. Yes, this one had a separate 3ft by 5ft screen for each vehicle. There is an inventive entrepreneur in Florida that has a property that is a flea market by day, and a 14 screen drive-in theater by night. Sounds like an interesting place!

Over the years, drive-ins have declined though from their high of 4063 in 1958 to their current total of 419 in 2005. There are 18 in Texas. Two of them are about an hour’s drive from where I live. An old one in Granbury, and a brand new one in Ennis. Both are south of Dallas, but I am just north of Dallas. It’s rare to see a new drive-in theater, but there are a few.
With the growth of cities across the map from the 1950's through the 1980's, the urban sprawl had reached the outlying areas that most drive-in theaters were built in, and so by then the rising cost of real estate in those areas meant that that real estate could be more profitably used to sell to builders to build homes on. Thus began the decline of DIT's. Fewer and fewer were available as each major city swallowed up all the land around it.

Also, having built a profitability system for a large theater chain, I can tell you that, on average, 93% of the profit for a traditional theater is in the concession stand. Theaters have to split the box office receipts with the studios that produce the movies. In the first week of a movie, the studio usually gets 70% of ticket sales for a blockbuster hit. So the theater is left having to pay staff, and heating, air conditioning, lighting, projection costs, equipment costs, real estate fees, lease costs, taxes etc. with just a small portion of the ticket sales. They would go out of business immediately if they were not selling 19 cents worth of popcorn for $4.00, etc.
In a regular theater, people don't bring in their own food, so they are forced to go to the concession stand and pay outrageous prices for food. But in a drive-in, people have the option of bringing their own coolers with their own food, their own drinks, etc. This has a big impact on the profitability of a theater, as you can imagine.
Subsequently, indoor theaters take less real estate, and have more protected concession sales, and therefore are more profitable. Hence the decline of DIT's over the years. But now, in the past couple of years there seems to be a small revival of sorts. There have been some new openings of DIT’s around the country.
Perhaps the Drive-In Theater still has a place in our lives. Maybe it offers something a little more unique than just seeing a movie. I have a home theater in my house. It is a dedicated room, with a high ceiling, and no windows. The walls and ceiling are all painted a dark gooseberry color except one wall which has a large white smooth section. That is the twelve-foot screen for the projection system. Also, there is a 500 watt 5.1 surround sound system with Klipsh speakers in there and 5-DVD disk player, and comfortable leather couches, and even a soft cloth recliner chair. There is a coffee table that lifts up with one hand to set a chest-level eating surface. There is even a microwave oven for making popcorn or heating up pizza.
Also, I have a collection of well-over 2,000 movies, and about 1400 of them are on DVD.

I have a perfect place for watching movies right in my own home. If I want to seriously get into a movie and experience every aspect of it in it's full effect, I watch it in my private theater. So why did I pack the family into the van and drive over an hour to Ennis last Saturday night to go park in a field and watch 3 movies (A TRIPLE Feature this time!) on a distant screen made of aluminum siding through a not-so-clean windshield, and then have to face driving over an hour back home at 2am?

Because it was fun. Harmless, happy, simple fun. A reminder of the old days when I was young. A chance to get out under the stars on a warm night and have an excuse to stay there for a few hours. Something different. Something increasingly unique. My daughter's boyfriend who is almost 18 had never been to a drive-in. This was his his first time. We played frisbee. We bought junk food at the snack bar. We watched the other people there. Played a little with the cats that seem to live at that drive-in. It's an experience. A pleasant memory for later.


Post a Comment

<< Home