Summer drive-ins and why they still matter

Taken at the Transit Drive-In in Lockport, N.Y.

Taken at the Transit Drive-In in Lockport, N.Y.

It was called the Nightly Double because it cost 25 cents for a double feature. They played two movies every night, and four on the weekends. That’s where Ponyboy Curtis and his gang of greasers would drink and pick up girls in S.E. Hinton’s 1967 coming-of-age novel, The Outsiders. And that’s where I first read about drive-ins.

Growing up in the 1990s, my generation found drive-ins as relics from another era, seen in books or films. Danny Zuko (John Travolta) sings about Sandy Olsen (Olivia Newton-John) at a drive-in in the 1978 musical movie, Grease. Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and Dr. Emmett “Doc” Brown (Christopher Lloyd) drive the DeLorean directly into a drive-in theatre screen to travel from 1955 to 1885 in Back to the Future 3. Both those movies were released before I was born, and the spotlight on drive-ins seems as prehistoric as the films featuring them.

Back in the day, Whiz Auto Products Company sales manager Richard Hollingshead Jr. came up with the novelty for drive-ins — a place where the family can watch movies in the comfort of their car — and in doing so, he changed the movie-going experience. In the 1930s, children went to matinees during the day and adults attended film screenings at night. The problem with this model was that this made the film-going experience a hassle for families; in order to go to a film, Mom and Dad would have to dress up and hire a babysitter.

As Jim Kopp of the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association told Smithsonian magazine, “His mother was — how shall I say it? — rather large for indoor theatre seats. So he stuck her in a car and put a 1928 projector on the hood of the car, and tied two sheets to trees in his yard.”

Since Hollingshead Jr. aimed a 1928 Kodak film projector at a white bed sheet hung between two trees in his Riverton, N.J., backyard, drive-ins have grown.

The first drive-in opened on June 6, 1933 in Camden, N.J. Hollingshead Jr. charged 25 cents per person to watch the British comedy Wives Beware. The next year, three drive-in theatres opened up in Pennsylvania, Texas and California. By 1958, the height of the drive-in era, more than 4,000 drive-ins thrived across the United States.

Unfortunately, drive-ins have been dwindling year by year. Today, only 357 drive-in theatres exist throughout Puerto Rico and the 50 states. Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii, Louisiana, North Dakota and Wyoming do not even have one drive-in.

Since the 1970s, drive-ins were replaced by housing complexes and shopping malls. The demise of drive-ins is partly due to costs to maintain.

“It’s a fun business, but it’s very difficult, because you have a six-month business and 12 months of expenses,” Steve Valentine, the former owner of the Buffalo Drive-In, told The New York Times. The Buffalo Drive-In closed in 2007.

Meanwhile, the comfort of watching movies in cars is replaced by the comfort of watching films at home. After all, why should you catch a double feature at a drive-in when you can watch unlimited movies and TV on Netflix for $7.99 a month — relatively the same price as a double feature?

If money were the only deciding factor, Netflix, Hulu and other online streaming sites would be the better deal, but drive-in theatres offer an irreplaceable social experience.

Just last summer, I was sitting in the backseat of my friend’s parked and fogged up Toyota Camry. We were catching the premiere of Snow White and the Huntsman at the Transit Drive-In when an unexpected movie montage started to play. It started with clips and quotes from Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and ended with the words, “Rachel, will you marry me?”

Now would that proposal been the same on a tiny laptop screen in the comfort of one’s home? Well, for one, it would be missing the honking cars and the collective cheers that followed. Rachel’s proposal wouldn’t have had the same audience (even if most of them were sitting in fogged up cars with the windshield wipers on).

Watching a film at a drive-in theatre is like going to a tailgate without the alcohol. The shared amenities include food, friends and a parking lot full of entertainment. Perhaps watching a DVD on a flat screen TV in your home or a movie in one of AMC’s plushy new recliners would be more comfortable than sitting outside under a canopy of summer mosquitoes, but drive-in theatres are as appealing as going to an outdoor game.

While the movies are the reason you’re out here, it doesn’t matter what happens on that screen (I’ve sat through some pretty bad double features at drive-ins). What matters are the kan jam games, the miniature golf — the friends and family who surround you and the time you spend with them.

Hollingshead Jr. may have started drive-in theatres to foster family-friendly movie-viewing experiences, but that’s not what keeps them going. Unlike movie theatres, you never go to drive-ins alone. The novelty rests in how many people you can pile in your van, how many drinks and snacks you can fit in your coolers and the half-circle of folding chairs taking up two full parking spaces. They’re about dressing up in your cloaks and wands for the premiere of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and trading that in for your masks and capes for the premiere of the latest summer superhero blockbuster. And let’s not forget the best part; summer’s only getting started…

Author’s Note: I wrote this at the beginning of summer, but didn’t get around to posting it until now…