Here’s one COVID-19 silver lining: The drive-in theater, a uniquely American creation, is doing booming business again.
I’ve long been nostalgic for this wonderful piece of Americana. When I was growing up in the ‘70s, my mother and father often packed my five sisters and I into our massive station wagon to see outdoor movies.
America’s first drive-in theater opened on June 6, 1933 in Camden, N.J. According to History.com, it was the creation of Richard Hollingshead, whose mother found indoor theaters uncomfortable. His idea, which he patented, was to create “an open-air theater” that would let patrons watch movies from “the comfort of their own automobiles.”
The concept was a success, but it wasn’t until 1949, when Hollingshead’s patent was overturned, that drive-in theaters began opening all over the country.
“The popularity of the drive-in spiked after World War II and reached its heyday in the late 1950s to mid-’60s, with some 5,000 theaters across the country,” reports History.com. “Drive-ins became an icon of American culture ... .”
Kerry Segrave, author of “Drive-in Theaters: A History from Their Inception in 1933,” explains that the boom resulted from several uniquely American trends in the 1950s.
New highway systems allowed entrepreneurs to purchase inexpensive farmland for outdoor theaters, which patrons could easily drive to.
Americans’ love of the automobile also was important. Car designs were bold and creative — the 1957 Chevy is still widely loved as a classic, beautiful design.
American cars in the ‘50s weren’t just machines to get people to and from places — they were statements. Americans loved spending time in their cars, including hours at drive-in theaters.
And with the baby boom well under way, for many single-income families with more than two children — like my family — the drive-in theater was one of the few entertainment venues they could afford.
We attended outdoor movies frequently in the mid-1970s and it was always a treat. The cooler was packed with soda pop and sandwiches. The family-size potato chip bag could feed a village. We lowered the tailgate of our Plymouth Fury station wagon and set up a glorious buffet on it.
Soon, the blue sky fell dark and the film projector began rattling. Black-and-white numbers — “5, 4, 3, 2, 1” — flashed onto the screen. Yellowed 1950s footage advertised hot dogs, popcorn and other concession items we could never get our father to buy. Finally, the feature film — such as “The Love Bug” — would play.
The drive-in theater never was as popular in any other country as it was in America. All great things come to an end, however. In 1978, as operating costs grew and rising land values encouraged entrepreneurs to sell to developers, the drive-in theater began to decline.
The United Drive-in Theatre Owners Association says only 305 drive-in theaters now exist — and, boy, are they needed now, as the coronavirus, and its social-distancing mandates, are impeding freedom to be entertained.
I trust that many more entrepreneurs, the lifeblood of our economy and the engines that will drive our economic recovery, will invent creative ways to get us to the movies. Large, blow-up screens? Temporary theaters in mall parking lots? How about dinner and a movie in restaurant parking lots?
Where there’s a need, a solution quickly follows, as the American drive-in theater is reinvented all over again.