The Story of the Drive-In

Like any cinema, a drive-in is a cinema with a large movie screen, projection booth, a stand selling snacks or drinks and a large area to park your car. What’s different is that instead of rows of seats, you have rows of parking spots and everyone views the movie from their car. Instead of buying individual tickets you generally pay by the carload.

As well as snacks and drinks, the drive-in was linked to larger restaurants – one business supporting the other, you might say.

There are drive-in theaters throughout the world; the first modern drive-in opened in 1933 in New Jersey, but it soon gained a cult following at about the 1950s.

Many old theaters appear on the National Registers of Historical Places. The 66 Drive-in at Carthage Missouri on US Route 66 is the oldest drive-in still going. It showed its first movie in 1949.

Mobmov is a worldwide network of guerilla (unofficial) drive-in theaters. It uses car powered video projectors and transmitters. This was begun in 2005 in San Francisco and all the shows were free.

The Early Drive-Ins:

The earliest drive-ins include The Theatre de Guadalupe in New Mexico, 1915, which only ran for a year. The first film presented was Bags of Gold.

The 1932 Hollingshead Theatre used a Kodak projector on the hood of a car. It was also necessary to set some of the vehicles on blocks so all viewers could see the screen. It offered 400 slots and advertised it as families welcome -not something you tend to see at cinemas today. The first movie was Wives Beware. Hollingshead ran it for three years without making a profit.

The problem could have been the sound issues, in regular theatres the speakers were high up on towers which unfortunately meant the sound wasn’t in sync when it traveled across an entire parking lot. In 1931 one solution was introduced, having a row of speakers in front of the cars. By 1941 you could control the sound using your own in-car speakers.

What’s the Draw of Watching a Moving in your Car?

The popularity of drive-ins could be due to it being the early days of cinema, how exactly do you watch this movie? It tended to be more popular with teens than older people, it could possibly be somewhere to take your car, and usually at this time, your date. Teens had a limited number of places to spend time with a date, this was the most privacy you could find while still being in public.

The reason why drive-ins began to fail may have been linked to the Uniform Time Act. Because drive-ins took place outside and during the evening the level of light is important: you can’t show movies in daylight. There was, no doubt, good reasons for increasing the hours of sunlight in the summer months, but it wasn’t conducive with running a drive-in.

After the 1960s the number of drive-ins shrunk from over 4000 drive-ins to a mere 325. It might just have been the light-after all it doesn’t affect patrons in the Spring, Autumn or Winter. Maybe the novelty had just worn off?

In replicating this American institution, businesses have looked for creating Art-deco sign displays and looking for sponsors to fund their enterprise. As with everything else promotion on Facebook and Twitter works wonders. Many people look for drive-ins to make a comeback under the current lock-down conditions. Only time will tell.

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