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Drive-in theater


Drive-in theater

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Drive-ins are an important pop culture memory for many. Drive-ins are an important pop culture memory for many.

The drive-in theater is a form of cinema structure (or rather, lack thereof), consisting of a large screen, a projection booth, a concession stand and a large parking area for automobiles. The screen can be as simple as a wall that is painted white, or it can be a complex steel truss structure with a complex finish. Within this enclosed area, customers can view features from the privacy and comfort of their cars. Some drive-in theater managers added children's playgrounds between the screen and the first row of cars. Concrete patios for lawn chairs were available at some drive-in theaters.

Originally, audio was provided by speakers on the screen and later by an individual speaker for each car. This system was superseded by the more economical method of broadcasting the soundtrack at a low output power on AM or FM Radio to be picked up by a car radio, an advantageous method as it allows the soundtrack to be picked up in stereo by the audience instead of monaural.

Because of a easy source of high-quality sound and the relative ease of hiding and mounting a camcorder, drive-in theatres are often preffered sites to make Telesync and CAM pirated movies.



The 61 Drive In, one of only three such theaters left in Iowa. The 61 Drive In, one of only three such theaters left in Iowa.

The drive-in theater was the creation of Camden, New Jersey, chemical company magnate Richard M. Hollingshead, Jr., whose family owned and operated the R.M. Hollingshead Corporation chemical plant in Camden. In 1932, Hollingshead conducted outdoor theater tests in his driveway at 212 Thomas Avenue in Camden. After nailing a screen to trees in his backyard, he set a 1928 Kodak projector on the hood of his car and put a radio behind the screen, testing different sound levels with his car windows down and up. Blocks under vehicles in the driveway enabled him to determine the size and spacing of ramps so all automobiles could have a clear view of the screen. Following these experiments, he applied August 6, 1932 for a patent of his invention, and he was given patent number 1,909,537 on May 16, 1933. (Seventeen years later, that patent was declared invalid by the Delaware District Court.)

Hollingshead's drive-in opened in New Jersey June 6, 1933 on Admiral Wilson Boulevard at the Airport Circle in Pennsauken, a short distance from Cooper River Park. It only operated for three years, but during that time the concept caught on in other states. The April 15. 1934, opening of Shankweiler's Auto Park in Orefield, Pennsylvania, was followed by Galveston's Drive-In Short Reel Theater (July 5, 1934), the Pico in Los Angeles (September 9, 1934) and the Weymouth Drive-In Theatre in Weymouth, Massachusetts (May 6, 1936). In 1937, three more opened in Ohio, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, with another twelve during 1938 and 1939 in California, Florida, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Texas and Virginia.

The drive-in's peak popularity came in the late 1950s and early 1960s, particularly in rural areas, with some 4000 drive-ins spreading across the United States. Among its advantages was the fact that a family with a baby could take care of their child while watching a movie, while teenagers with access to autos found drive-ins ideal for dates. Revenue was more limited than regular theatres since showings can only start at twilight. There were abortive attempts to create suitable conditions for daylight viewing, such as large tent structures, but nothing viable was developed.

In the 1950s, the greater privacy afforded to patrons gave drive-ins a reputation as immoral, and they were labeled "passion pits" in the media. During the 1960s, the movies shown changed from family-oriented pieces to sexploitation movies. In addition, the economics of real estate made the large property areas increasingly expensive for drive-ins to successfully operate. These changes and the advent of VCRs led to a sharp decline in the popularity of drive-ins. They eventually lapsed into a quasi-novelty status with the remaining handful catering to a generally nostalgic audience.

In 2002, groups of dedicated individuals began to organize so-called "guerilla drive-ins" and "guerilla walk-ins" in parking lots and empty fields. Showings are often organized online, and participants meet at specified locations to watch films projected on bridge pillars or warehouses. The best known guerilla drive-ins include the Santa Cruz Guerilla Drive-In in Santa Cruz, California, MobMov in Berkeley, California and Hollywood MobMov in Los Angeles, California, and most recently Guerilla Drive-In Victoria in Victoria, BC. The Bell Museum of Natural History in Minneapolis, Minnesota has recently begun summer "bike-ins," inviting only pedestrians or people on bicycles onto the grounds for both live music and movies.

Family drive-ins are making a comeback in some states. Garrett, Texas is the home of the Galaxy Drive-in Theater, a four-screen drive-in which opened for business in 2004.

Concession stand

Snack bar ad shown at a drive-in. Snack bar ad shown at a drive-in.

The concession stand, also called a snack bar, is where the drive-in makes most of its money. As a result, much of a drive-in's promotion is oriented toward the concession stand. The typical snack bar offers any food that can be served quickly, such as hot dogs, pizza, hamburgers, popcorn, soft drinks, candy and french fries.

To send patrons to the concessions stands, advertisements were projected before the feature and during the intermissions. Now a great source of nostalgia, these memorable concession commercials often featured animated food such as dancing hot dogs and talking boxes of popcorn. These ads were collected in 1993 for a video, Hey Folks, It's Intermission Time, once distributed by Something Weird, and the 1978 film Grease has a scene in a drive-in showing such an ad.

Drive-ins in films and paintings

Released on video, After Sunset: The Life & Times of the Drive-In Theater is a 1995 documentary featuring producer Samuel Z. Arkoff, director John Carpenter and critic Joe Bob Briggs. Drive-in theaters have also been featured as movie locations, notably Peter Bogdanovich's Targets (1968) about a veteran horror film actor (Boris Karloff) making a personal appearance at a drive-in theater while a freeway sniper (Tim O'Kelly), hiding behind the movie screen, prepares to shoot the theater's customers.

"Moments to Remember," a series of paintings by Beaumont, Texas, artist Randy Welborn, includes two paintings of Beaumont drive-ins in the mid-1950s. "Goin' Steady" depicts the Circle Drive-In which opened in 1948, and "A Summer Remembered" shows the South Park Drive-In which opened in 1950. In Welborn's audio slide shows, he explains the photographic research and painting techniques he uses to recapture the past.


  • "Drive-in" (2001). The Film Encyclopedia, 4th ed., Ephraim Katz (ed). HarperCollins, New York.
  • Don Sanders, Susan Sanders, (October 2003) The American Drive-In Movie Theater Motorbooks International. ISBN 0760317070
  • Kerry Segrave (October 2001) Reprint Edition. Drive-In Theaters: A History from Their Inception in 1933 McFarland & Company. ISBN 0899507522
  • Elizabeth McKeon, Linda Everett, Liz McKeon (December 1998) Cinema Under the Stars: America's Love Affair With the Drive-In Movie Theater Cumberland House. ISBN 158182002X

External links

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