It might seem that celebrating the drive-in movie season during the dog days of August is a celebration that is coming about two, maybe three months too late. Isn’t summer just about wrapped up? Ha! Only if you’re in still in grade school—my kids went back to their respective halls of education on August 8! For them summer, in a single but significant way, is over. But for everyone else (including students), especially if you’re in the southwestern part of the country, the hot days of summer aren’t giving way to cool temperatures anytime soon, regardless of the insistence of the calendar. In Southern California, climate change has made summer-style heat a staple well into October, and sometimes beyond. Here it’s always drive-in season, even in January, and that’s the silver lining of a sizzling autumn for fans of the specific joys of outdoor cinema.
And each year around this time, a big bunch of my friends and I get together at one of SoCal’s primo ozoner destinations, the Mission Tiki Drive-in, to salute the demise of another calendar summer in high tailgating, starlit movie style. (If you’re in the Los Angeles area and would like to join us, check out our official Facebook event page and come on out! It’s happening Saturday night, August 20!)
In honor of our drive-in party weekend, and in honor of this being the 83rd summer since the first drive-in was opened, I thought it might be fun to revisit the history of the drive-in movie theater and celebrate some of the reasons why, despite a sharp decline in the drive-in theater population in the last couple decades, the drive-in is still with us, even enjoying a most unlikely renaissance.
It was eight years ago that I was commissioned by the now-defunct Green Cine Daily, a wonderful aggregator site dedicated to corralling the Internet’s best writing on film which went dark in 2015, to create what they called “a drive-in primer,” a guide to the progression of drive-ins and drive-in culture throughout the 20th century. It was a fun article to write, especially since I never thought that I’d be writing anything about drive-ins in 2008 that was dedicated exclusively to their inevitable demise, which by then I would naturally have assumed would be an event long seen only in the rear-view mirror. By the time I published the article for Green Cine Daily, I’d been writing about the resurgence in Southern California drive-ins at my own blog for about three years, ever since I and several like-minded fanatics founded the Southern California Drive-in Movie Society during the summer of 2005. (SoCalDIMS has been dormant for a couple of seasons now, but we still maintain a very active Facebook presence.)
Eight summers have passed since I did my little investigation into this distinctive, but not exclusively American phenomenon, and since the original article is no longer accessible through Green Cine Daily I have obtained their permission to spruce it up a bit and reshare it with you, for this weekend and beyond. Many thanks go out to Jonathan Marlow for securing the permission to reprint the piece here, and especially to David Hudson, who so kindly featured many of my earliest articles at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule on the pages of GCD, thus ensuring me a much larger audience than I would have ever gained on my own, and to OG GCD editor Craig Phillips, who was the fella who asked me to write the piece for them. I hope you enjoy it and that it inspires you to seek out a drive-in near you, especially if you haven’t done so in a while.
INTRODUCTION: A FADING INTO THE SUNSET
During the summer of 2000, my newborn daughter went to her first movie. My wife and I took her to the Foothill Drive-in, along fabled Route 66 in Azusa, California, to see that revered children’s classic Mission: Impossible 2. All right, she was three months old and she slept through most of it– so did my wife, truth be told. But regardless of what was actually playing, being there at the drive-in with my first daughter was a moment of bittersweet significance for me. I finally had a child of my own, who I hoped would grow up with an appreciation of the movies, and yet it seemed entirely likely she would never know the kind of fun to be enjoyed at a drive-in movie.
I walked her around the Foothill’s near-empty lot and told her stories about the drive-in movie theaters of my past– how I worked on the snack bar and clean-up staff of my hometown passion pit; how being friends with the son of the theater owner got me on to the crew for the drive-in’s annual 4th of July fireworks show; and how movies weren’t necessarily better at a drive-in– in fact, the projection and sound were usually a downgrade from what you could see and hear at an indoor theater– but they were always special, and often somehow more memorable for having been taken in under the stars.
I carried my daughter around the lot, and we eventually approached one of those old-style speaker posts, which still had the speakers attached even though the Foothill was now sporting FM radio sound originating from a low-wattage transmitter in the projection booth. That speaker pole was now a totem to memories left in the wake of technological advancement. Gone were the days of bouncing from parking spot to parking spot in search of the one speaker whose sound didn’t seem like it was originating from 1933, and from inside a rattling cellophane bag. Nevermore would drive-in patrons forget to replace the speaker after the end of the movie and either tear the pot metal device from the post or shatter their driver’s-side window as they absent-mindedly pulled out of their spot to head for the exit. As I told my daughter with sincere melancholy, drive-ins would likely soon vanish altogether– rising property values combined with the cost of maintaining drive-in businesses in the home video age would likely ensure that the few remaining drive-ins which were still flickering in 2000, like the one we were standing in, would remain perched squarely in the crosshairs of cultural irrelevance, marked for a swift and steady disappearance.
Standing there, holding my daughter in the shadow of the Foothill’s drive-in screen tower, I honestly believed that by the time she was old enough to put on her pajamas, load up in our car with a bunch of pillows, blankets and bags of home-popped popcorn and head to the drive-in like I did with my family when I was a kid, the drive-in movie theater would be a true dinosaur– gone, baby, gone.
YET THE PROJECTOR FLICKERS ON
Fortunately, and against all indications, I was wrong. Although they are far less in number than they were during their peak in the late ’50s (in 1958, specifically, there were 4,058 drive-ins in operation across the nation), the drive-in movie theater still exists. The number of drive-ins showing movies has remained at slightly above 400 over the last 18 years – the last precipitous drop occurred from 1998-1999, when 134 drive-ins closed during that single year. (Less than a year after we last visited with my daughter in 2000, the Foothill Drive-in closed. It has been dark for several seasons, its screen torn down, though its lavish marquee, a noted attraction along Route 66, remains standing.) But since 1999 the total number of drive-ins has stabilized; fewer have closed and disappeared. Going to the drive-in in 2016 is a rarified experience, to be sure– Californians in 1958 had 223 separate drive-ins in this state alone from which to choose. When I wrote the first version of this article in 2008, that number was down to 19. On the occasion of this updating, on the 83rd anniversary of the opening of the first drive-in back in 1933, that number has actually increased—the Paramount Drive-in in Lakewood, California reopened three years ago after a 22-year dormancy.
The drive-ins which remain, here in California and all over the country, are experiencing a renewed commitment from their owners, and especially a renewed commitment from customers who cherish the outdoor movie vibe as one that is extremely friendly to families, family budgets and family viewing habits. Most drive-ins have admission prices that are five to six dollars per person less expensive than their indoor cousins, and some don’t charge admission, or charge only a minimal $1 fee, for children under the ages of 9 to 11. Modern drive-ins cater to budget-conscious families by playing double features of first-run commercial fare, with an emphasis on family-oriented pictures – blockbuster releases and animation from the likes of Pixar and DreamWorks. And many here in California and elsewhere have invested thousands of dollars to maximize the experience of the theater itself, upgrading everything from the snack bar and surrounding grounds (tiki décor, ’50s diners and California orange groves are just three of the themes adorning drive-ins in the Los Angeles area) to the technical presentation, with FM car radio sound and super-bright digital projection which rivals that seen on indoor screens. The heyday of the drive-in may be gone, but then so too are the days of squinting to make out shadowy images on badly illuminated screens and listening to crackly sound heard through antiquated, poorly maintained speakers.
One way that drive-ins really have changed, however, is the kind of movies they feature. If one were to take an informal survey of drive-ins across the country and what they were showing midway through this past summer, the list would probably boil down to some combination of the Ghostbusters reboot, The Legend of Tarzan, Finding Dory, The BFG, X-Men: Apocalypse and Star Trek: Beyond. The men and women who book drive-ins live for a schedule of releases like these, because they know there is endless family appeal there that can be extended and reshuffled well into the summer season. In this regard, the current incarnation of the drive-in is hardly the familiar picture of a passion pit exclusively showing cheaply produced fare targeted at restless youth—no, they’ve got their sights set squarely on the broad appeal of mainstream Hollywood releases. And in that regard, 21st-century drive-ins are no different than drive-ins were in their infancy, into the 1940s and 1950s.
During the years just after Richard Hollingshead opened the very first drive-in theater in New Jersey in 1933, drive-ins showed what every other theater showed – any and all features, big and small, that they could get hold of. And after World War II, when the baby and the drive-in booms really began, drive-ins were still considered family-friendly establishments. Many installed playgrounds and other fun attractions underneath the screens to encourage parents to bring the kids. Even if the fare on screen was more of an adult nature, the kids would play outside until the movie began, indulge in the snack bar cuisine of the evening and then either settle in for an exciting western or crime picture, or fall asleep during a less interesting romantic drama or serious story intended more for the grown-ups. For many kids of this generation, drive-ins were one of the main ways for kids to gain exposure to the kind of movie fare that parents would be otherwise less naturally inclined to offer to their children.
By the 1950s the drive-in boom was well underway. From less than 1,000 theaters in 1948 to near 5,000 in 1958, the drive-in theater had arrived and was busy making its mark on pop culture. (During this same period, over 5,000 indoor theaters closed.) The All-Weather Drive-in in Copiague, New York, was an early winner of the “my-drive-in’s-bigger-than-your-drive-in” competition, boasting a 28-acre lot capable of holding 2,500 cars. (This was before the advent of multiple-screen lots, remember– the All-Weather had one screen.) It also made room for a 1,200-seat indoor viewing area that was heated and air-conditioned, hence the “all-weather”claim, in addition to its playground facilities, cafeteria and full-service restaurant. The All-Weather Drive-in was so big it even featured a shuttle service to carry customers to the various locations on the 28 acres, presumably even to their cars.
As the sizes and numbers of drive-ins increased during the ’50s, so too did the variety of extra attractions drive-ins offered. Many would open up to three hours early to offer families access to such pre-movie excitement as miniature trains, pony rides, boat rides (!), talent shows, animal shows and even miniature golf. It was around this same time, at the beginning of the ’50s, that drive-in snack bar menus began to expand, offering everything from fried chicken and barbecue to chili and cheeseburgers, pizza and frozen ice cream treats. To promote these new and exciting offerings, the drive-in intermission film was born.
But the ’50s also brought a new home-based medium into the mix, and as the boom of the ’50s gave way to the leveling off of the appearance of new drive-ins, television began to force changes to the kinds of movies being made and how they were distributed. Indoor theaters competed with TV by innovating the sheer size and scope of the image, accommodating wider aspect ratios and better sound quality. Drive-ins, on the other hand, were already becoming popular destinations for the teenaged crowd, and they competed fiercely for the attention of motion picture distributors and drive-in theater owners who began to cater much more to their taste in exploitation movies, disposable comedies and low-rent horror and science fiction.
A good drive-in movie was one that ostensibly wouldn’t suffer if you missed a portion of it while on a snack bar run, or socializing with buddies on the lot, or because the windshield of your sedan got all steamed up for whatever reason. Independent producers began churning out tons of low-budget fare designed specifically to play on double and triple features at drive-ins. These were usually disreputable pictures that more often than not either skipped engagements at indoor theaters altogether or were relegated to downtown grindhouses.
In any case, even if one or two A-list titles managed to make it onto the drive-in screen during this period, they were often accompanied by a couple of low-budget titles whose specific purpose was the filling out of the B and C slots of a drive-in program, hence the adoption of the term “B movie” to describe them. (For a look at a typical assortment of advertisements touting exactly this sort of eclectic drive-in programming culled from newspapers during this time, and news on upcoming drive-in events all over the country, check out the Nostalgic Drive-In Theater Newspaper Ads page on Facebook.)
THE ’70s, ’80s AND FORWARD INTO THE FUTURE
By the beginning of the 1970s drive-in attendance had plateaued and the amount of theaters in existence in 1982 was only just over half that of the peak year of drive-ins, 1958, when nearly 5,000 screens dotted the landscape of America’s urban jungles and rural backroads. The movies were still there, for the most part– there was no lack of cheap horror films and lurid sex fare in the early ’80s, to be sure, but drive-ins, in an attempt to stay liquid, began to turn into second-run venues for mainstream Hollywood fare, and even hard- and soft-core porn, which led to much community consternation and, eventually, a bunch of chained-up entrance gates and abandoned lots. By the time the home video movement was in full swing in the late ’80s, the demise of traditional Hollywood entertainment outlets was not coming about in the way heralded by doomsayers who predicted that the Betamax would undermine entertainment industry profits. Instead, home entertainment options were driving more and more nails into the coffins of established drive-in theaters, who were giving over their ever-more-expensive lots out to swap meets or folding altogether due to lack of patronage.
Yet somehow, through all the battles over expensive tracts of land giving way to urban sprawl and encroaching Wal-Marts and mini-malls that characterized the ’90s and the beginning of the 21st century, the drive-in never succumbed to extinction. Stalwart independent owners, small real-estate corporations and even some large exhibitor chains never quite relinquished their hope that the drive-in, though an unlikely candidate for a full-scale comeback, still had life in it yet and could be nurtured by the right management and supported by a new generation of drive-in fans who remembered the experience and wanted to actively pass that love on to their kids.
So here we circle back around to the year 2000 and me standing on that lot in Azusa, California, hoping that my three-month-old daughter would someday see and love drive-ins on her own, yet never realistically thinking it would happen. Well, she’s 16 years old now, and she and her 14-year-old sister are 11-year veterans of many summer (and winter) trips to the few Southern California drive-ins that are still going strong, theaters that play to year-round record business and the delight of people like my girls and me. The future of the drive-in seems, for the moment at least, assured by its appeal to economically minded families looking for inexpensive ways to have fun together.
No, the drive-in may never again achieve the particular vibrancy afforded it by the lowbrow pop culture that ran through its veins and its projectors in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. But for those who value the experience above all, this is a small price to pay. Many of these theater owners are working hard to ensure that attending a drive-in movie remains an activity that harkens back to the good old days and fashions fresh, happy memories for a new generation at the same time. As long as there are theaters like these, I feel confident that the drive-in will still be around in 30 years, when my daughters want to take their own children and tell them about their own good old days of movies under the stars.
(NEXT: In tomorrow’s installment of the FOVC Guide to the Drive-in Movie, we take a look at one studio that specialized in creating movies tailored toward the popularity of the drive-in in the ‘50s and ‘60s, as well as a baker’s dozen movie directors who had the drive-in sensibility coursing through their veins and their movies.)