Love by the Dashboard Lights

See the Stars Under the Stars

What goes around comes around and so it is with the drive-in theatres. For those of us of a certain age, the drive-in theatre was the place to be on a Saturday night in the 1950's. Our parents would put us in our p.j's, maybe pack a picnic, toss in the dog, throw a few lawn chairs in the back and off we went to see the stars under the stars. We listened to the tinny voices coming out of the speaker, played in the playground before the show and struggled to stay awake during the second feature.  Later as teenagers the drive-in was the ideal place for some back seat groping as monsters from the black lagoon, martians and aliens gave sex curious teens a good excuse to cuddle. Who cared what movie was showing anyway?

Old Drive in theatre

On the early 1930's, Richard M. Hollingshead of Camden, New Jersey, a car and movie buff decided to try something new. He nailed a white sheet across two trees in his backyard, put a Kodak movie projector on his car hood and put a radio behind the screen. His neighbours must have thought he was more than mad but this was just the start to an overnight sensation. On June 3, 1933 he opened up his first outdoor theatre and while the sound quality was poor at best, 600 people came to watch Wives Beware, a 1932 comedy that he played three times that night. Admission was .25 a person per screening plus .25 per car.  A hit was born and Variety Magazine called people who watched movies at drive-ins Ozoners.

The drive-in was at its peak in the 50's and 60's with about 4,000 theatres dotting the North American landscape. Managers offered such perks as petting zoos, Saturday night pyjama parties, Sunday church services, dusk to dawn shows, triple features, kiddy playgrounds and music shows to lure patrons. And, to appeal to the younger crowd that just couldn't get enough of the drive-in experience in Dad's old Chevy, horror movies were created and played as a key drawing card for the teens who were the most frequent patrons.

Baby boomers recall that, "In reality the picture quality back then was poor and the sound was bad too. If you wound up your window all the way to do some cuddling then the car windows steamed up and if you let the windows down the mosquitos got in. But in looking back, the atmosphere and fun were peerless."

Dead Drive In

Over the years drive-in theatres came and went. The big indoor theatre screens, video games, DVD and VCR rentals,  flat tv screens and a myriad of other modern methods of entertainment initially saw a decline in numbers of drive-ins at the end of the 1990's and into the early 2000's.

 By 2013, drive-ins made up only 1.5 percent of movie screens in the United States yet at the industry's height, 25 percent of the nation's movie screens had been in a drive-in. Iffy financial ups and downs, sell outs to developers and costs to go digital ranging from $70,000 to $100,000 per screen, saw the drive-in going downhill fast. All across Canada and the United States, weedy fields sprouted deserted theatres with massive crumbling screens and the rusty broken speaker posts lined up in rows.  However, things saw a turnaround in 2003 as nostalgia for the good old days and a desire by parents to share some quality, fun times with their kids saw many of the old theatres refurbushed and new ones being built.

In 2012 there were  366 drive-ins in the United States with a total of 606 screens. Some places like the Hollywood Drive-in, which has been showing movies on Route 66 near Troy, New York, since 1952 just never gave up. In Canada there are 55 drive-in theatres in existence and most of them are in Ontario.

Jennifer Sherer Janisch, CEO of  Drive-On-In, Inc states, "In the last several years we've seen drive-in expansion, drive-in reopenings, and even brand new drive-ins. Drive-ins are catering to families and enjoying great success. Aside from the unique atmosphere and the fact that it's so affordable, now more than ever, people want good, clean fun... and drive-ins have it."

A Slice of Nostalgia Pie

The American Drive-In Movie Theatre
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(price as of Jun 24, 2015)

Al Fresco Star Gazing

Unique Draws at Unique Drive-Ins

Somebody always puts a twist on an old idea and the following theatres have done just that to lure in patrons looking for something new.

Shankweiler's Drive In - Pennsylvania - USA

  • April 15th 1934: Wilson Shankweiler opens Pennsylvania's 1st Drive-in,  the 2nd Drive-in to open in the USA, in Orefield, Pennsylvania. (4,000 more follow within 25 years.) and in 1948 he installed speaker posts and speakers.
  • 1982 - AM radio micro vicinity broadcasting is installed for superior sound quality. This is a first!

Sunset Drive In - India

  • Started on September 6th 1973, this theatre is massive allowing  665 cars and 6,000 people to enjoy the Bollywood movies they offer. This theatre also offers a huge food court, and garden. 

Menlyn Park, Pretoria - South Africa

  • This rooftop theatre sits sky high(a first) on the top of a retail complex and shows movies 7 days a week.
  • On Tuesday it is "Cram In" day and for the price of one regular ticket a carful can see a movie.
  • While not available at time of writing, you can arrange for a vintage car for your viewing including a 36 Ford Sedan, a 55 Chevy Bel Air and a 56 Pontiac.
  • For a date to remember they also offer picnic baskets including burgers, chips, chocolate and cold drinks. For a little extra enjoy a bottle of champage and two glasses.

Fly In and Drive In Asbury Park - New Jersey

  • Edward Brown added a whole new dimension to the Park and Fly idea with his June 3rd, 1948 Drive-In and Fly-In. 500 cars and 25 planes could fit in this complex and planes taxied into the last row of the theatre. When show time was over, the planes were given a tow back out to the airfield.

Old Drive-in ad film

Drinks, ice cream and, of course, smokes!

Loved but Not Lost

Cinema Under the Stars: America's Love Affair with Drive-In Movie Theaters
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(price as of Jun 24, 2015)

Sit-In is the new Drive-In

Technology saved the Drive-In

While technology may have appeared to have been a factor in the demise of the drive-in, in actual fact it has given rise to a new wave of outdoor theatre lovers. New products coupled with cutting edge technology have surfaced and in doing so have been a saving grace to this much loved pastime. Enter the Air Screen that enables a small group of 30 to a huge crowd of 3,000 to watch under the stars. The inflatable screens range from 9 feet right up to 40 feet in height and with a 3D upgrade to really get things moving, or an old fashioned popcorn maker the outdoor experience is complete. The drive-in just got its second wind!