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Drive-in theater: Wikis


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A Drive-in with a 100ft wide inflatable movie screen (Airscreen) in the center of Brussels, Belgium
A Bullitt Ford Mustang replica at the Capri Drive In Theater in Coldwater, Michigan, during a showing of Bullitt at their 40th anniversary in 2004.
Bass Hill Drive-In Cinema, Sydney, Australia

A drive-in theater is a form of cinema structure consisting of a large outdoor 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 movies 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. Others even went as far as adding miniature railroads, merry-go-rounds, and miniature golf courses. Concrete patios for lawn chairs were available at some drive-in theaters, as well as indoor seating for the concession stand. Due to the outdoor setting of drive-in movies, they are usually only shown in the evenings or at night when it is dark enough to see the screen properly.

Originally, a movie's sound was provided by speakers on the screen and later by an individual speaker hung from the window of each car, which would be attached by a wire. This system was superseded by the more economical and less damage-prone method of broadcasting the soundtrack at a low output power on AM or FM Radio to be picked up by a car radio. This method also allows the soundtrack to be picked up in stereo by the audience on an often high fidelity stereo installed in the car instead of monaural through a simple speaker.



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 Riverton. 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 U.S. Patent 1,909,537 on May 16, 1933. That patent was declared invalid 17 years later by the Delaware District Court.[citation needed]

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.[1] It offered 500 slots and a 40 by 50 ft (12 by 15 m) screen.[2] He advertised his drive-in theater with the slogan, "The whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are".[3] (The first film shown was the Adolphe Menjou film "Wife Beware".)[4] The facility only operated 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 12 during 1938 and 1939 in California, Florida, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Texas and Virginia. Michigan's first drive-in was the Eastside, which opened May 26, 1938 in Harper Woods near Detroit.[citation needed]


The Sandell Theater (2000 photograph) off U.S. Highway 287 near Clarendon, Texas, is a reminder of by-gone days.

The drive-in's peak popularity came in the late 1950s and early 1960s, particularly in rural areas, with some 4,000 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 is more limited than regular theaters since showings can only begin 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 1970s, some drive-ins changed from family fare to exploitation films, as a way to offset declining patronage and revenue. In fact some producers in the 1970s would make exploitation films directly for the drive-in market. Also, during the 1970s, some drive-ins began to show pornographic movies in less family-centered time slots to bring in extra income[citation needed]. This became a problem because it allowed for censored materials to be available to a wide audience, some for whom viewing was illegal. This also led to concern about the availability and uncontrollability of adult-centered media in the general public. The drive-in was open to abuse, such as the smuggling in of viewers in the trunks of cars to avoid paying for individual tickets.

Many drive-ins devised very elaborate and sometimes quirky modes of comfort. Some drive-ins provided small propane heaters, attempting to entice their patrons to come in colder months. Some drive-ins provided a heating or air-conditioning system via underground ducts to heat or cool patrons[citation needed]. Audio systems varied greatly during the era of drive-ins. Some used portable speakers on trucks during the early days but this proved ineffective since the people in the front were blasted with sound while the people in the back could not adequately hear what was being said. One solution came in the form of small speakers which could be hooked onto the side window of the car. These caused damage to the window if one forgot to remove them before driving off, also they had a problem with sound quality and did not provide stereo sound. Later still, as in-car stereos became standard equipment, broadcast of the audio track on particular radio frequencies permitted the most efficient means of delivery.

During their height, drive-ins used attention-grabbing gimmicks to entice even more people to become patrons. Some drive-ins installed small runways for their patrons to fly in on. Other drive-ins had strange and unusual attractions such as a small petting zoo or a cage of monkeys for the enthusiasts to come and see. Recognizing the growing importance of pop-culture, many of the larger drive-ins had celebrities come and open their movies at a particular drive-in or invited a particular musical group to come and play before the show. Some drive-ins actually held religious services on Sunday morning and evening. Others charged a flat price per car on slow nights like Wednesday. There were "buck" nights in the 1950s and 1960s where the cost was a dollar per car.


Hollywood Drive In in Averill Park, New York; credits roll for Aliens in the Attic, 2009

Over time, the economics of real estate made the large property areas increasingly expensive for drive-ins to operate successfully. Land became far too valuable for businesses like drive-ins, which in most cases were summer-only. Widespread adoption of daylight saving time subtracted an hour from outdoor evening viewing time. These changes and the advent of color televisions, VCRs and video rentals led to a sharp decline in the popularity of drive-ins. Business itself with a drive-in was subject to the whim of nature as inclement weather often caused cancellations. They eventually lapsed into a quasi-novelty status with the remaining handful catering to a generally nostalgic audience, though many drive-ins continue to successfully operate in some areas, such as the ones in Ruskin, Florida; Lexington, Virginia; Eden, North Carolina; West Chicago, Illinois; Eau Claire, Wisconsin; Lamesa, Texas; Wichita, Kansas; Lake Elmo, Minnesota; Luverne, Minnesota; Oak Harbor on Whidbey Island, Washington; and Ohio. Many drive-in movie sites remain, repurposed as storage sites, or sites of flea markets. In fact, the largest drive-in theater in the world, the Fort Lauderdale Swap Shop, doubles as the world's largest daily flea market.

Another example of a drive in-turned-flea market is Spotlight 88 in North Sewickley Township, Beaver County, Pennsylvania, which ended business as a drive-in after an F3 tornado destroyed much of the property on May 31, 1985. As a joke after the tornado hit, the owners put up in the "now-showing" sign Gone with the Wind. Spotlight 88 remains open despite competition from other flea markets in the area, most notably Rogers Community Auction and Flea Market in Rogers, Ohio, as well as the recently-opened Big Beaver Marketplace in nearby Big Beaver, Pennsylvania.

However, many of these sites are being converted to higher intensity commercial uses such as the Midway Drive-In near Federal Way, Washington.


A newly-built drive in screen near Superior, Iowa.

2001 marked the inception of the "Do-It-Yourself" Drive-In, which utilized contemporary tools such as LCD projectors and micro-radio transmitters. The first was the Liberation Drive-In in Oakland, California, which sought to reclaim under utilized urban spaces such as vacant parking lots in the downtown area. The following years have seen the rise of the "guerrilla drive-in" movement, in which groups of dedicated individuals orchestrate similar outdoor film and video screenings. Showings are often organized online, and participants meet at specified locations to watch films projected on bridge pillars or warehouses. The content featured at these screenings have frequently been independent or experimental films, cult movies, or otherwise alternative programming. The best known guerilla drive-ins include the Santa Cruz Guerilla Drive-In in Santa Cruz, California, MobMov in San Francisco, California and Hollywood MobMov in Los Angeles, California, and most recently Guerilla Drive-In Victoria in Victoria. 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. In various Canadian cities, including Toronto, Calgary, Ottawa and Halifax, al-fresco movies projected on the walls of buildings or temporarily erected screens in parks operate during the Summer and cater to a pedestrian audience.

Concession stand

Snack bar ad shown at a drive-in.

As with indoor cinemas, the concession stand, also called a snack bar, is where a drive-in earns most of its profits. As a result, much of a drive-in's promotion is oriented toward the concession stand.

One of the most well-known is the concession stand at the Sky-Vue drive-in located in Lamesa, Texas. Their specialty sandwich, known as a Chihuahua (consisting of homemade chili, secret sauce, and jalapeños between two corn tortillas), is well known across their region.

The typical snack bar offers any food that can be served quickly, such as hot dogs, pizza, cheeseburgers, popcorn, soft drinks, coffee, hot chocolate, ice cream, candy and french fries. To send patrons to the concession stands, trailer advertisements called snipes were projected before the feature and during any intermissions. Now a great source of nostalgia, these concession commercials often featured animated food such as dancing chili dogs and talking boxes of popcorn. These ads were collected in 1993 for a video, Hey Folks, It's Intermission Time (distributed by Something Weird Video), and the 1978 film Grease has a scene in a drive-in showing such an ad during the song "Sandy".

The opening of the Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie also features a spoof of the animated food dancing. The movie opens with the classic food items dancing and singing and offering audience suggestions, such as "remember to keep your shoes on at all times." The latter half of this bit is completely different, having a violent heavy metal band made of food items. They also offer thoughts on the audience's behavior, with statements such as "Don't Talk, WATCH!".

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. "Shining Stars: Canada's Drive-In Movie Theatres" (2004) by Sean C. Karow is the definitive documentary on Canadian drive-ins.

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. In Back to the Future, Part III, an unoccupied drive-in is where the DeLorean time machine is launched into the Old West. An old drive-in theater is the setting for a shoot-out in Heat (1995 film).

"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.

In the 2005 film Herbie Fully Loaded, a scene where Maggie Peyton and Kevin did repairs to Herbie featured a drive in theater showing a scene from one of the Scary Movie films.

Popular names of drive-in theaters

Most drive-ins from the early days were just simply known as "Drive-In Theater", but as they started quickly appearing across the landscape, they obviously had to be given more specific names (i.e. town or nearby town of a drive-in's location or family surname). Among the more popular names that were used for a wide variety of outdoor theaters include:

  • Hi-Way
  • Starlite (or Starlight)
  • Moonlite (or Moonlight)
  • Super ### (named for the state route or U.S. route the drive-in is located on)
  • Family
  • Valley
  • Sunset
  • Sky Vue (or variant)
  • Star Vue (or variant)

Drive-in theater songs

Songs mentioning drive-in theaters

See also

The Ford-Wyoming Drive-In, the largest operational drive-in in Michigan.


  1. ^ Strauss, Robert. " The Drive-In Theater Tries a Comeback; Looking for a Few Hundred Adventurous Moviegoers", The New York Times, July 23, 2004. Accessed March 26, 2008. "The nation's first drive-in theater was built by the Hollingshead family along the tawdry Admiral Wilson Boulevard in Pennsauken, N.J., in 1933."
  2. ^ Lewis, Mary Beth. "Ten Best First Facts", in Car and Driver, 1/88, p.92.
  3. ^ "This Month in History", Smithsonian magazine, June, 2003.
  4. ^ Lewis, p.92.

Other reading

  • "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 0-7603-1707-0
  • 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 1-58182-002-X.
  • Sanders, Don and Susan. Drive-in Movie Memories. Middleton: Carriage House, 2000.
  • Sanders, Don and Susan. The American Drive-in Movie Theatre. Osceola: Motorbooks International and Wholesalers, 1997.
  • Segrave, Kerry. Drive-in Theaters: a History from Their Inception in 1933. Jefferson: McFarland and Company, Inc., 1992.
  • "The Drive-in Theater History Page". Drive in Theater. 20 April 2007.

External links

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