Drive-in Movies: Then and Now
One of my favorite summer activities is to take a trip to the drive-in movie theater at least once a year. There is something about sitting outside on a warm summer evening watching a double feature in a lawn chair with crickets chirping and children running around in their pajamas. Despite the poor sound quality, numerous distractions, and late night out, the drive-in is an experience worth going to, if you can still find one.
The first drive-in theater opened in Camden, New Jersey on June 6, 1933. Back then, they were called park-in theaters. Invented by Richard Hollingshead Jr., the cost was 25 cents per car and 25 cents per person with a maximum fee of $1.00. By the 1950’s, there were over 5,000 drive-ins nationwide. In his essay, My Creature From the Black Lagoon, popular horror author Stephen King reminisces about going to the drive-in with his family as a little boy in the heyday of the drive-in movie era and how the monster movies he saw from the back seat of the family car helped to influence his love of the horror genre.
The technology at drive-in theaters has improved over the years. While back in the day, the muffled sound of the film came from speakers set up on poles around the lot, today, the film’s sound typically plays through the car radios. Projectors have advanced too from ancient film projectors running the film on large sheets to the now mandatory digital projectors showing the moving images on billboard-sized screens.
While trips to the movies have remained a popular pastime, especially in the summer, the drive-in movie experience has become more difficult to find over the years. Under 500 theaters still exist in the United States. The blame is shared with rising real estate costs, the convenience of now renting movies without leaving your home, and a growing number of indoor theaters where you can watch movies in any weather.
“I grew up in Oklahoma and Missouri, and I just loved film. My folks would take us to the drive-in on summer nights, and we'd sit on the hood of the car. I just had this profound love for storytelling.” - Brad Pitt
The Appeal of Drive-In Movies
It is true that drive-ins are not the best place to view a movie for the first time. Like going to a sporting event, there is just so much going on around you that it is hard to focus on the main attraction. It can be difficult to hear, there are people running back and forth to the bathroom and snack bar, and cars are constantly coming and going. Still, here are some ways that the drive-in benefits over an indoor movie-going experience:
The Price – The price of a drive-in movie is typically much cheaper than the price of an average movie ticket. At the drive-in near me, the price is only $8 for a double feature. Food is also much cheaper. While the cost of a bucket of popcorn at and a drink is usually more than the ticket itself, at the drive-in, the food is very reasonable. Sometimes, the popcorn is as cheap as $1.00. There are also more foods to choose from: carnival foods such as nachos, hot dogs, and pizza are available at the snack bar as well as ice cream, candy, etc. You can get there early and eat before the movie. You can also bring your own snacks and picnic under the sunset.
Attire – Many people (children especially) come to the drive-in their pajamas. Double features are hard to stay up for so it’s nice to have the work half done in preparing the kids for bed if you’re going to be getting home late. No one gives a second look to an adult in their pajama bottoms and slippers at the drive-in either.
Watching the Sun Set Before the Movie Starts – The movie cannot start until it gets dark. So, while you wait, you can watch the sun set over the trees or mountains or highway or wherever your theater is located. Some of the best sunsets I have ever seen have been at the drive-in.
Drive-Ins Featured in the Movies
If you’ve never been to a drive-in before, here are some tips that I recommend.
Bring A Chair – If you’re riding in the back seat, it can be hard to see from that spot if you stay in the car. I like to sit out front where the view is clear. Otherwise, you’re looking through a foggy windshield or through a hole between the seats for the duration of the movie (or movies). It can get uncomfortable and cramped and can be even more difficult to pay attention to the movie itself.
Bring A Radio – If you are going to a drive-in where the sound comes through the radio, be sure to bring one, especially if you are sitting outside. You should be able to hear okay from the sound coming from the surrounding car radios, but you’ll hear much better if you bring a radio to set near your chair. It won’t be surround sound quality, but at least you’ll be able to hear the dialogue.
Get There Early - Just as with indoor theaters, there are limited spaces available. There are even fewer open spaces available for larger vehicles (vans, SUV’s, trucks, etc.). These customers are usually required to park in the back of the lot. So, these spaces fill up fast.
Read the Rules – Make sure that the drive-in allows pets, alcohol or other questionable items before you try to bring them with you. One major offense is when people try to sit in the back of their cars, leaving their trunk open and obstructing the view of the vehicles behind them. At my drive-in, employees often come around with ropes to tie the trunk doors parallel to the ground so that everyone has a decent view of the screen.
Watch Out for the Bathroom – One convenience of the drive-in is that the bathrooms are often built in the middle of the lot so you can leave in the middle of the movie and still hear it while you do your business. However, the toilets tend to back up by the end of the first movie, and the soap and paper towels run out fast. If you’re seeing a double feature, try to go just as the first movie is ending to beat the line and still get a working toilet that flushes. It might be a good idea to bring some antibacterial solution as a back up as well.
“When I was a kid, the only way I saw movies was from the back seat of my family's car at the drive-in.” -Forest Whitaker
I hope that wherever you live, you moviegoers have a drive-in movie theater in your area to visit this summer. Whether it’s your first time, or hundredth time going, be sure to enjoy the ruggedness, timelessness, and pure enjoyment that a drive-in movie theater can bring.
Please share your drive-in movie experiences in the comments below.
What was the first movie you saw?
How old were you?
Who did you see it with?
Where did you sit?
How did you hear it?
When was the last time you went?
The History of Drive-Ins:
Drive-In Movie Locator: http://www.drive-ins.com/theaters?keywords=&city=&code=us&status_op=
Complex Magazine's "The 25 Most Unique Drive-In Movie Theaters" http://www.complex.com/rides/2012/06/the-25-most-unique-drive-in-movie-theaters/bengies-drive-in-