The 1950s and ’60s were considered the golden age for drive-in movie theaters. It was an inexpensive night out for the family, where children were welcome and parents could come as they are. During that era, there were around 4,000 drive-in theaters in the United States. Currently around 300 operate on a regular basis. That may be changing in this time of coronavirus.
Richard Hollingshead is credited with opening the first Automobile Movie Theatre in Camden, New Jersey, on June 6, 1933. He applied for and received a patent for his design, though there is evidence of similar car-viewing screens as far back as the 1910s. Hollingshead didn’t realize a profit on his idea, and sold it to an enterprise that promptly moved his drive-in to another location. Two decades later, the Baby Boom was in full swing and in 1950, Hollingshead’s patent was ruled invalid. That opened the door for anyone who wanted to start a drive-in movie business to do so without paying a royalty.
America’s love affair with the car had taken a firm hold on the developing national zeitgeist as more boomer families bought cars and moved to the suburbs. Cars were large, affordable and relatively comfortable, so drive-in movies were a natural fit for the generation. Land was cheap and available for would-be proprietors, as well. The perfect arrangement of circumstances fell into alignment for the industry to grow and thrive.
Once boomers were old enough to drive, and either borrow their father’s car or buy one of their own, the drive-in movie became an inexpensive place to go for a date. It was also a surreptitious location to gain some alone time. For some boomers, asking a date to a drive-in movie was synonymous with a pre-approved make-out session. The last row in the drive-in was often the place to be when watching the movie was a secondary event.
Mister Boomer went to the drive-in movies with his family at an early age. There were several to choose from near his home, so his father could decide which movies he and the family would see. Mister B recalls seeing Dumbo and Cinderella in a double feature for the first time at a drive-in. Most drive-ins in his area had a playground at the base of the screen. Families could arrive an hour before the show, which began at dusk, and the kids could play on swing sets and teeter-totters. A good many young boomers were already dressed in their pajamas, an indication that they would not last the full length of the two movies, intermission and cartoons that would be presented.
The dawn of the VCR, the downsizing of the family car and the widespread adoption of Daylight Saving Time are all mentioned as reasons why drive-in theaters began to close by the hundreds in the 1970s and ’80s. Land was also at more of a premium as the suburbs grew, so with the average drive-in occupying 15 acres, proprietors could retire on the profits of selling the land to housing and mall developers.
Flash forward to today’s headlines about how the presence of the coronavirus has changed just about every aspect of our lives, and the drive-in theater looks to be an idea whose time has come once again. Drive-ins are being used for graduation ceremonies, weddings and pop, rock and country concerts. People can venture out of their quarantine shelters, still protected by the shell of their cars. Social distancing isn’t much of a problem when drive-ins limit the number of vehicles. Open air and space to breathe remind people of a day when we’ll put this health crisis behind us.
Jumping on this bandwagon, Walmart announced that the company will create 160 drive-in theaters in its parking lots, set to open in August and stay operational through October. Others are popping up in parking lots of restaurants, malls and stadiums. While there are no longer any drive-in theaters in business in Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii, Louisiana and North Dakota, Mister Boomer reminds all boomers that, if they live near one of the 300 or so drive-ins that have remained in operation, convince your children and grandchildren to make the nostalgic choice and patronize your local drive-in. After all, we were there first.
What family memories do drive-in theaters bring back to you, boomers?