Boomers Went to Drive-Ins Long Before Coronavirus

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?

Boomers Watched the Apocalypse on Screen

When COVID-19 first began its spread across the United States, very quickly people created lists of pandemic movies that were either eerily similar to our situation or a good distraction to the reality outside our doors. Mister Boomer checked out a bunch of them, and found that the vast majority completely ignored films from the boomer era. Most started their lists with films released in the 1990s and later, and almost all included the movie, Pandemic (2016). We’re talking about our generation here, so those lists aren’t of much use in these parts.

When Mister B put on his thinking cap and let his fingers do the walking through the Internet, what he did discover was there were very few films made during the boomer era of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s that pertained to bacterial and virus-related epidemics. There was the occasional zombie infection and all, but take a look:

• 1950s sci-fi films were often metaphors about the perils of nuclear war. All the giant monster films begin with radiation turning smaller creatures into gargantuan size. Others featured alien invasions of Earth, either the bad aliens out for their own gain (to gather slaves, food, people as food, our water, etc.) or the good aliens coming to warn us against using atomic weapons.
• The 1960s went far-out there imagining all sorts of ways for mankind to be on the brink of extinction. Many of these films were foreign-made and most were unmemorable. One has to wonder if the era of experimental drug use influenced the writing of films.
• The 1970s films were a bit more interesting. The one that Mister Boomer recalls and would like to recommend is The Andromeda Strain (1971).

First the Book, then the Movie
Michael Crichton published The Andromeda Strain in 1969. It was the first of his novels published under his own name. Boomers will recall he went on to pen the Jurassic Park series of books and films, among others. The Andromeda Strain was brought to the silver screen in 1971.

Just over a decade after the first men were launched into space, Crichton envisioned a time when the U.S. military would launch a satellite into space for the express purpose of discovering and gathering microorganisms. Their intentions were to seek out microorganisms that could be made into biological weapons.

As luck would have it, a meteor containing such a microorganism crashes into the satellite, causing it to fall to Earth in a small desert town in Arizona. The town’s population is wiped out within minutes. This organism clots human blood almost instantly.

Naturally, the military gets involved and tries to cover up the entire project while scientists discover the true intent of the military satellite and rush to identify, contain, and neutralize the virus. Suspense and drama ensue.

In the end, despite heroic means, the organism can’t be controlled by human science and escapes its containment facility to a level in the Earth’s atmosphere that is more an environment to its liking, leaving the question of, if it is still out there, waiting for the moment when it will return to devastate life on the planet.

It’s a suspenseful movie that mixed science and fiction in a way that made people wonder if it could actually happen. Now that we face an actual Earth-bound foe that is wreaking havoc around the globe, maybe it’s time for us to once again view those monster, disaster and apocalyptic movies of the boomer era to digest the overarching moral that ties these stories together: namely, it’s not nice to mess with Mother Nature, in any part of the Universe.

How about it, boomers? Did you read The Andromeda Strain or see the movie when it was released?