Do you remember the Drive-In? Have you ever watched a movie from back of a station wagon ? Or from the comfort of the seat of your car? If so you’ll know what a unique experience it can be. If not, you might be asking “What the hell?” Well believe it or not, in the past your automobile was a common front row seat for a movie. Reaching it’s Zenith in the 1950’s, the drive-in movie theater was a truly American creation and experience. Since then it’s popularity has declined. What happened to the drive-in theater?
The first “proto-drive-in” can be traced back to 1913 in the New Mexican town of Las Cruces. At the time they were referred to as a “park in theater.” Various, typically temporary, adaptations of this were in use until 1933. In 1933 a gentleman by the name of Richard M. Hollingshead, Jr, was awarded a patent for his concept. Hollingshead developed his concept in his personal driveway. He experimented with different screens, projectors and sound. He also used the blocks in his driveway to determine the optimal spacing between vehicles. He opened his Drive-In with the slogan “The whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are.”
Hollingshead never was able to turn a profit and was sold but the concept caught traction in the nation. Early drive-in’s battled with sound issues. Originally large towers with speakers amplified the sound but customers in the back experienced a delay from what they saw on screen. In 1941 the RCA company introduced weather resistant in-car speakers which sat over the door. This allowed for individual control of the amplification and also solved the noise pollution problem.
After World War Two, ownership of automobiles increased as did the popularity of the drive-in. In 1950 Hollingshead’s patent was deemed invalid enabling anyone to open their own drive-in theater without having to pay royalties. The golden age of the drive-in theater had arrived. Parents could bring their children and young couples could have an opportunity at a first date. The number of drive-in’s spiked to 5000 and became an icon of American culture. This was not to last.
In 1966 Daylight Savings Time became the standard throughout the United States which meant the hour at which movies could be shown was pushed back, in some cases to 10pm with the last show at midnight. For anyone with children this became untenable. The drive-in shifted to late night exploitation and b-movie films to sustain but it didn’t last. With the population sprawling and interest rates hiking real estate value increased and it became more lucrative for owners to sell. Then the VHS was introduced (What happened to the VHS?) and movie watchers were able to watch from the comfort of their own home which further hampered the industry. The closures kept on going until the 1990s.
In the early 2000’s a revival seemed imminent but was dealt another blow by the conversion to a digital format by film makers. Today, multiple campaigns, creative marketing. and drive-in fans keep some 300-350 drive-ins in operation. Will we see a return of the drive-in?