The Rise, Fall and Lasting Wonder of the Drive-in

The drive-in is an icon of twentieth-century American entertainment. Since the height of their popularity in the ‘50s and subsequent decline as real estate costs rose and technology advanced, drive-in theaters have gotten creative — and even made a brief comeback as a socially-distanced, open-air pandemic pastime. Cover graphic by Ruth Chang for Midstory.

The sparkle of the drive-in began for Wes Neal when he was just a young man.

“In 1954, my grandfather left his day job and went down to the drive-in and asked them if they needed help. They hired him the next day,” Brian Neal, Wes’ grandson and current manager of the Boulevard Drive-In in Kansas City, Kansas, said.

Wes was ramp manager, or as they called him, “ramp boy.” In other words, Wes parked cars. He worked tirelessly at the drive-in, even through economic decline, leasing the venue in the 1970s and eventually taking full ownership in 1986. Now, at the age of 94, Wes can be found running the ticket booth and concessions as one of the main fixtures of the drive-in — quite literally. 

“He lives on the property,” Brian Neal said. “He wanted to move to the theater — grandma would never let it. [After she passed away], he looked at me and he said, ‘I’m moving to the drive-in. And she can’t stop me now!’”

 The Boulevard Drive-In hosts regular “swap and shops” and community events. Image Courtesy of Mill Valley News.

But Wes wasn’t the first to be captivated by the drive-in; its origin hearkens back to June 6th, 1933 in Camden, New Jersey, with a showing of the 1932 British Fox comedy “Wives Beware” (titled “Two White Arms” in the U.K.). 

By many metrics, the Camden Drive-In was magnificent. It spread across 250,000 square feet with eight semi-circle rows that extended at a 50-foot incline to the end of the property, holding at full capacity over 500 cars for one viewing. It became host to groundbreaking audio advancements, including a shift from the use of three, large blocky speakers mounted to the side of the 30-foot projector screen to smaller, individual speakers hung on the side of the window for maximum audio quality.

The Camden Drive-In, located in Pennsauken, New Jersey, was the first commercial drive-in to open its doors on June 6, 1933. Images courtesy of Cinema Treasures.

Its glory, however, was short-lived, and within only a handful of years, it returned to its former existence as an empty lot, a sad but telling portrait of the turbulent path for many drive-ins that followed.

While the first drive-in wasn’t an immediate success, it did lead to hundreds of locations springing up across the country in the coming years, especially in the Midwest, where small and midsized towns were craving entertainment and wide-open rural farmlands provided the space needed for such a grand endeavor. At one point in time, the U.S. had more than 4,000 drive-ins and of these, over 40 percent were in the Midwest.

The Troy Drive-In, located in Troy, MI was one of the largest drive-ins with a capacity to hold 3,000 cars. Image courtesy of Troy Historic Village.

According to Mary Morley Cohen, author of “Forgotten Audiences in the Passion Pits: Drive-in Theaters and Changing Spectator Practices in Post-War America,” the concept of the drive-in really didn’t take off until post-war, when there was an economic boom from G.I. bills for land and vehicles.

Drive-ins reached their peak of glory from the 1950s to 1960s, able to entertain a wide audience and actively advertised to the family unit. Families could enjoy an evening out without the need for a babysitter, and the cost was often more affordable (paying by vehicle instead of by person at some venues).

In some ways, the drive-in created a new space, a space for “other,” that the traditional theater did not typically accommodate. The setup of the venue itself normalized accessibility for wider audiences, including the “forgotten audience” – those disabled or economically disadvantaged, and even across racial divides at a time when Jim Crow laws were still active throughout the nation, Cohen said.

A striking (and problematic) advertisement for the Camden Drive-In. Image courtesy of Cinema Treasures.

Drive-ins were also at once both public and private spaces. Audiences could enjoy one’s privacy and comforts while participating in a community with other moviegoers; patrons could talk, eat and drink without causing any disruption.

Drive-ins also extended entertainment to outside of the vehicle, installing playgrounds, offering pony rides, providing a dance floor and holding horseshoe tournaments, fireworks and other special events.

A playground at a drive-in theater in the 1950s. Image courtesy of the International Center of Photography. 
Fixing a tire at a drive-in located in San Francisco, 1948. Image courtesy of Life Magazine.

The appeal of the drive-in began to wane as people moved further into the suburbs. With the rise of the mall and multiplex theaters from the sixties to the early nineties, the number of drive-ins dropped steadily over the next decades. Running drive-ins on once-affordable land quickly became a financial burden, especially in seasonal areas, where real estate costs rose and technological advancements to stay competitive were beyond what many family-owned operations could maintain. Real estate developers were quick to buy up the large acreage to build shopping malls. 

Technology become a more and more critical factor as movie studios began integrating the latest developments in sound and digital image quality into their productions. Particularly following the shift from traditional film reels to digital format, many drive-ins were forced to make tough decisions, shuttering their doors.

“The studios said [they were] no longer gonna make film prints,” Brian Neal said. “They gave us plenty of warning — [we] knew it was coming. It was cheaper to ship the digital than the film … Only a number of [drive-in owners] could get movies, and if you weren’t a big chain or a big theater, you wouldn’t be able to get those for sure.”

By 2020, there were only five hundred forty-nine drive-ins still in operation in the U.S. According to Brian Neal, the fact that there are even that many left in operation has a lot to do with nostalgia. What the drive-in afforded for audiences was wonder, attraction and distraction — a carnivalesque experience that was at once both public and private.

Miraculously, the drive-in is also one of the few business models that was able to thrive during the pandemic. For example, the retail giant Walmart held a run of drive-ins in its parking lots for the summer and fall seasons of 2020. “Pop-up” drive-ins across the U.S. became a destination for those seeking to get outside and safely enjoy entertainment in a public setting, and many drive-ins are even offering options for other organizations to operate safely – from business retreats to church services and concerts. Once again, the drive-in was able to offer its audiences a unique space that traditional theaters could not. 

And it’s not the first time drive-ins have served as a safe entertainment space during public health crises: as Cohen notes in her article, drive-in theaters promoted themselves as safe places for those afflicted with polio during an epidemic in California in the fifties era and for parents “who fear to expose their children or themselves to local epidemics of flu, measles or whooping cough feel safe in the privacy of their own cars.”

A Garth Brooks concert was held at a drive-in in 2020. Image courtesy of The New York Times via Newspaper Source.

For other, less traditional drive-ins, innovation is the name of the game, and no two drive-ins are the same. 

“They really kind of take on their owner’s personalities,” Brian Neal said.

Some are modeled to capitalize on the nostalgia of earlier times, and owners often supplement the operation to keep it alive. Some run side businesses such as “swap and shops,” like Boulevard Drive-In in Kansas City. Other side businesses, from towing to candy shops, to capitalizing on the movie equipment and the space, drive-in owners utilize new ways to draw in cash flow through multipurpose uses, all for the goal of retaining that iconic image of classic Americana, Brian Neal said.

Other drive-ins, however, are taking a more modern, creative “spin.” The Alamo franchise in Texas annually offers the drive-in movie experience from the comfort of an inner tube float at a waterpark, arguably at least as creative as the 1940s Massachusetts and New Jersey drive-ins that allowed you to watch the movie from a plane.

 A showing of Jaws film at the Volente Beach Waterpark. Image courtesy of Austin Chronicle.
Fly In Drive-In, New Jersey, 1949. Image courtesy of Daily News.

Whether it’s because of nostalgia of America’s golden era or simply the novelty of watching movies from a car, venues and communities across the country are rallying to keep drive-ins alive. 

The Toledo, Ohio metro area once had eight drive-ins, according to Randy Studer, a former projectionist for some of the local drive-ins. Today, he’s one of several local residents hoping to preserve its history.
Earlier this year, The Sundance Drive-In in Oregon, Ohio, which originally opened in 1949 as the Parkside, announced that it is now in its final season and will close its doors in the fall of 2022. The announcement has sparked attention and support from the community, with a local non-profit organization created to raise funds to help keep the venue and experience alive; Save Our Screen envisions not only the preservation of the drive-in but also utilizing the space as a National Drive-In Museum and as a venue for large community events.

The Sundance Drive-in located in Oregon, Ohio. Image courtesy of Toledo City Paper.

Over at the Boulevard Drive-In in Kansas City, long-standing efforts to preserve the tradition have not gone unnoticed: in 2018, the mayor designated June 15th as Wes Neal Day.

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