The Drive-in Movie Theater

The drive-in reaches a crossroads.

How does one mark the decline of an American icon? In 1998, the U.S. Post Office—in search of a commemorative stamp that represented the 1950s—polled the public about images they identified with that decade. Not surprisingly, the drive-in theater emerged as the number one choice. For many, these roadside theaters evoked strong memories of youth, endless summers, and romantic evenings spent under the stars. An icon by the time its long swan song began forty years ago, rising real estate values and a changing social landscape pushed the drive-in to the brink of extinction. Today, reaching out to a new generation of movie-goers, the drive-in has forestalled its decline while searching for a new identity.

The drive-in was born in the early thirties in the New Jersey driveway of Richard Hollingshead. After working out the details of projection in his yard, he propped up the front ends of cars on blocks and ramps to enable everyone to get a clear view. Shortly after receiving a patent in the spring of 1933 he opened the first theater in Camden, New Jersey. Due in part to technical considerations drive-ins were not an immediate success, and even his Camden theater folded after just a few years. By the late forties drive-ins still numbered in the hundreds, but in the ’50s—when indoor theaters were closing left and right—the drive-in flourished, and a decade later were five-thousand strong.

Today, the number of drive-ins in America hovers around five hundred. “Four or five years ago it was doom and gloom,” said Randy Loy, who along with his wife Debrean founded the United Association of Drive-In Theater Owners (UADITO), a volunteer-run organization that holds an annual conference and publishes a newsletter to inform and educate owners. “Every time we turned around there was a drive-in being sold for a shopping center or a housing development. Most of the drive-ins that were in larger cities, where the land is valuable, are gone.” But Loy is quick to note, “the ones in the rural areas have stayed. They seem to be thriving.”

In those areas, the dirve-in is not just a nostalgic point of reference. Families still flock to the double feature every night of the week in high summer. Yet, even where drive-ins thrive, the stand-alone theater seems to be a thing of the past. More often than not, the drive-in of today is part of a theme park, often flanked by a mini-golf course or water slide. The diverse amusements make today’s visit more of a family outing than the romantic experience of the past.

While the decline of the drive-in was rooted in economics, cultural changes played a role as well. Malls and multiplexes provided a comfortable and predictable entertainment experience, along with an unlimited range of choices, making it hard for the neighborhood drive-in to compete. Yet, periodically reinforced by the media—the Foo Fighters music video for “Breakout” a recent example—the icon of the drive-in lingers and lives, and the abstract of the experience survives no matter how many roadside theaters are open.

While it would be premature to definitively proclaim the 40-year downturn over, there are indications that the numbers are leveling off. Old drive-ins are being restored & resurrected and new ones are being built in far-flung places like upstate New York, China, Russia, and Australia. There’s even a handful of drive-in multiplexes.

Expansion or extinction is the fork in the road that lies before the venerable drive-in as it faces the 21st century. Meanwhile, somewhere in rural America on a lovely summer night, a new generation of movie-goers sits expectantly in the darkness and waits.