Drive-In Theaters

Drive-in Theaters: Then and Now

The tagline for the movie American Graffiti is “Where were you in ’62?” Nowadays, the answer is ?probably in front of a computer;? but in the glory days of the 50s and 60s, if you were young and full of life, you were probably in a car.

One of the uniquely American institutions of those days was the drive-in. Invented by New Jerseyite Richard Hollinshead in 1932, and perfected in the years that followed, the drive-in was the perfect spot for summer evenings. The pitch for the new venue was originally oriented towards families, as a good outing for children, where they would be free to be noisy, unlike an ordinary movie theater.

The target audience for the drive-in very quickly came to include teenagers, as well, who at the time were limited in their choices of date venues. Artists from George Lucas to Stephen King have written and filmed paeans to the idyllic getaway spots that were the outdoor movies, although movies themselves were often the last reason that cars pulled up in those dark parking lots.

Over the decades, a number of technical issues with outdoor movies were addressed, not always successfully. Drive-in theater engineers never figured out a way to show movies in daylight, which put a serious damper on potential revenues, especially on weekends. A number of technical solutions were attempted, including large and cumbersome shields that were designed to block sunlight from reaching the screen and destroying visibility; however, even reflected daylight was enough to wash out the picture to the point of irrecognizability.

Sound was another problem ? with large drive-in theaters, there was simply no way to make sure that an outdoor speaker system was able to deliver uniform, clear sound to every spot of the lot; moreover, car windows and bodies cut out much of the sound even in spots where audibility was good.

Beginning in the early 1940s, the solution was to issue separate speakers to every car. This worked for sound quality, but created a whole new set of problems with theft and vandalism. Eventually, some theater owners switched to equipping small radio broadcast stations that could be found on the car stereo, without issuing equipment to every car.

Today, most theaters that survive still use this solution, although the FCC has ruled FM-band transmitters illegal for drive-in use, and those who use them, do it at their own risk.

The decline of the drive-in was a long process, with many contributing factors. High real estate prices drove many theaters out of business, since they could no longer afford to charge reasonable prices for tickets in places where people would be willing to drive. High fuel costs played their part, as well as the popularity of VCR’s and other home entertainment options.

Eventually, the theaters that survived were those that showed risky grindhouse fare, to the further detriment of the drive-in’s appeal as suitable family entertainment. Throughout the 80s and 90s, drive-ins were not much more than a curiosity or a nostalgic experience.

Recently, however, there have been signs of a comeback for drive-ins. Instead of a mainstream institution run as a business, these new theaters are, as a rule, operated by independent film buffs who just want to show movies. LCD projectors, micro-radio transmitters and other affordable modern gadgets have allowed people to show movies on the cheap; this is often the only way that experimental or non-standard fare can be seen on a large screen (even though the screen may well be, in this case, a painted warehouse wall).

With just under 400 such drive-ins operating in the United States today, it seems that this American tradition still has some life in it left after all.

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