It's still light outside when the cars and trucks start to line up. The box office opens and families, young couples or car loads of friends begin to roll by, heading off to screen one, two or three. They turn down their favorite row, back into the spot, tune the FM radio to 89.9, pop the hatch and pull out the lawn chairs, blankets and pillows. The kids run around on the grass in the headlights that have not yet been turned off. The sky begins to darken, the excitement builds, the wind blows and everyone grabs their popcorn and gets cozy and comfortable. When the first stars start to flicker in the night sky, the screen comes to life. There is just one preview, the movie starts and hundreds of people relive one of the greatest American traditions of the 1950s, watching a movie at the drive-in.
I remember going to the drive-in with my parents when I was a kid. There was almost nothing as thrilling as getting ready for bed and then getting in the car to drive to the movies. My sister and I got to stay up late, we ate buttery popcorn out of a big brown paper bag and we fell asleep in the backseat watching strange movies like Enemy Mine while our parents snuggled in the front seat. It was a magical summer experience and I am so thrilled to be able to give my kids the same memories at our own local drive-in theater in Warwick, NY.
In 1932 Richard Hollingshead began some tests in his driveway with his car, a screen attached to some trees and a 1928 Kodak projector to determine placement and sound issues for an outdoor movie theater. He found that the front of each car needed to be elevated to see over the car in front of it. He applied for a patent and on June 6, 1933 he opened the first drive-in Camden, New Jersey. Hollingshead's company, Park-It Theatres, licensed the idea to Loews Drive-In Theatres, Inc., but was not able to collect royalties. Park-It took Loews to court but eventually the patent was invalidated and Hollingshead was never able to profit from his idea. In the book, Drive-In Theaters: A History From Their Inception in 1933 by Kerry Segrave, there is a quote from Hollingshead which shows that he was quite bitter about the situation.
According to the United Drive-in Theatre Owners Association (UDITOA), at it's peak in 1958 there were 4,063 drive-ins in operation across the country. In the 60's that number began to fall, but it was the 10 years between 1978 and 1988 that was the hardest on the industry, with 1000s of drive-ins closing due to an increase in property values that made selling for redevelopment very attractive. Today, there are about 380 drive-ins across the country, with only one still operating in it's birthplace of New Jersey.
The lone theater in New Jersey is the Delsea. It closed in 1987, reopened in 2004 and seems to be doing well today. Drive-ins have been experiencing a resurgence in the last 10 years, partly due to high prices at the multiplex. A drive-in ticket at our local theater is $8 for an adult, $5 for kids and free for kids under 4. Your ticket buys you a double feature. At the Starlight Drive-In in Atlanta, where there are six double features to choose from, prices for adults are just $7 and kids are only a buck. That is a much better deal than a traditional theater and way more fun.
Browse through this list of drive-in theaters in the US to see the drive-ins operating in your state. There are also listings for Canada and Australia. The top five states for drive-ins are: Pennsylvania with 33, Ohio with 30, New York with 29, Indiana with 21 and Texas with 19. (as of September 19, 2010, source UDITOA)
It's an unforgettable experience, watching a movie under the stars in the open air. When we went last weekend, the place was packed and the air was buzzing. It was the beginning of the summer and people were just thrilled to be outside. I hope we will go again and again this summer. I love supporting a local, family owned operation and I want it to stay in business, so we always buy our refreshments there. Most drive-ins make their money at the concession stand, so if you want to keep the place open for years to come, make sure to buy your popcorn there.
There is another option for those who find themselves nowhere near a drive-in. It's the backyard movie extravaganza! All you need is a laptop, large speakers, an LCD player, a large white wall and for a big crowd maybe a rented popcorn machine. Here are more tips about how to create a backyard theater on the cheap. We hosted a backyard movie party in 2005 and that summer we watched many fantastic movies in our backyard, including an epic Lord of the Rings marathon.
However you do it, I hope that you are able to get outside this summer to enjoy a movie. If you regularly attend your local drive-in, remember going when you were a kid, or have hosted a backyard movie party, I'd love to hear from you in the comments! If you haven't had the pleasure of watching a movie outside, I encourage you to get outside and make some lasting memories.