There Are Now Just 357 American Drive-In Theaters

Drive-ins, you may have heard, are in trouble. Their decline has been distinct—and distinctly lamented—for more than 40 years, and yet they somehow never quite die off. Like newspaper comics, they are one of those beleaguered swatches of Americana that never quite give up. And yet there is a new crisis. Those some 360 or so drive-ins remaining, having weathered the rise of the television and the multiplex, declining attendance, and rising suburban real estate costs, face a new dire threat yet—digital projection.

Distributors are about to stop shipping 35 millimeter film and shift to entirely digital distribution. This is little hazard to commercial cinemas, but a clear peril to drive-ins. Their intrinsically being a bit behind the times is the source of much of their charm; in this instance it is a distinct hazard. As of January, the Los Angeles Times estimated that 90% of the fewer than 400 remaining drive-ins had not converted to digital.

To offer some perspective; an analog-to digital television converter, which you might recall buying back in 2007 or so, cost between $40 and $70; a shift to digital projection costs about $70,000 per screen. Then there’s the cost of year-round temperature control for the projector. Most drive-ins, it should come as no surprise, don’t exactly have liquidity piled up behind the concession stand’s pillow for rutting employees; the cost is, to put it mildly, potentially fatal.

A wide range of fundraising campaigns have been launched to aid these conversion efforts. You couldn’t make these efforts sound more affecting, whether they’re relying on Kickstarter or simply checks in the mail: “Save the Star Drive-In” , “Save the Fairlee Drive-In”, “Help the Skowhegan Drive-In convert to Digital” or “Project Hull’s Into the Future.” And it’s a heartwarming effort: drive-ins aren’t simply a collection of outmoded lots fueled by the fumes of nostalgia and Teen Lust, but are a still vibrant iteration of a fascinating form of moviegoing, a series of independent businesses offering inimitable local color in the age of the multiplex, and, for those distant from urban parks showings of Mississippi Mermaid, a chance at that sublime delight of moviegoing in the open air.

If you think that your local drive-in is in trouble, you’re probably right. Find a drive-in near you and ask. You might find that 80 years of history is too much to lose due to a piece of equipment.

The first drive-in hails, unlike most things, from Pennsauken, New Jersey, the invention of a Camden chemical manufacturer, Richard M. Hollingshead, Jr. Clearly a man of talents beyond the chemical, Hollingshead made a novel impression by quickly obtaining a patent for the concept. The idea simply proved irresistible, spreading across the country, with or largely without Hollingshead’s consent. The oldest continually-operated drive-in, Shankweilers in Orefield, Pa, opened in 1934; others spread across the whole of the country.

Hollingshead continued a series of court battles for his presumed tribute, which yielded some entertaining legal language. See the First Circuit Court of Appeals:

This accurate arrangement of parking stalls in a lot is obviously only an adaptation to automobiles of the conventional arrangement of seats in a theater employed since ancient times to enable patrons to see the performance while looking comfortably ahead in a normal sitting position without twisting the body or turning the head….

He tried for the Supreme Court in 1950, but they refused the case, and so the lower court’s decision stood: his patent was not enforceable. He died penniless and insane, subsisting on stale popcorn. Actually, he probably didn’t, but he launched a dynamo of an idea.

By the late 1950s, one-third of theaters in the US were drive-ins, doing a brisk business in offering affordable entertainment to huge swathes of the American public. Affordability was not an accident. Drive-ins, to a greater extent than traditional theaters, were reliant upon concession sales to drive revenue, and were rarely much concerned with routing distributors money. As distributors shifted from collecting a set fee to extracting a set percentage of the gross, so drive-ins shifted to per-car fees. That great coup of countless moviegoers, sneaking in via the trunk? Drive-ins didn’t care in the slightest, so long as the attendees were hungry.

“Drive-ins were actually playing a difficult game from the start; the economics of the business were, from the start, counterintuitively awful, somewhat like building a wind farm in a valley. As Kerry Segrave wrote in Drive-in Theaters: A History from Their Inception in 1933, the most comprehensive (and excellent) book-length look at drive-ins:

The rise of the drive-in was most improbable. Climate dictated that it would be functional in most of this country only for part of the year. And during that part of the year the days were long — so long that one show per night was all that was really feasible. They showed a film that had made the rounds and then some by the time it unreeled at the drive-in. Sound quality ranged from abysmal all the way up to poor, with the illusion that the sound came from the actors’ lips—always believable in a hardtop house—never even remotely sustainable outdoors. During the height of summer, for the first ten or twenty minutes, the viewer might have trouble seeing anything at all on the screen, as the operator would start the show as early as possible—too early to prevent the sun’s illumination from washing out the screen—to try and squeeze in a second show. None of this mattered at all at first. The lot was almost always full.

Drive-ins were engaged in a constant battle of invention to attract customers before dusk and most importantly, to keep them eating. According to Segrave, nearly 90% of drive-ins had a playground by 1956. Dances would be held prior to screenings. Other carnivalesque enticements flourished; fireworks, petting zoos, and pony rides with the ultimate aim to extract as much concession revenue as possible from the narrow hours of marketable darkness.

A goofy range of means to deliver sound cropped up. Large speakers proved too loud for neighbors; in-car speakers were devised. Some bizarre devices, in an effort to extend the practical viewing season, delivered both heat and sound. Rain-shields were sold to avoid the need to run windshield wipers. “Drive-In DDT” was proclaimed as a means to beat pestilences. Low-frequency AM radio settings soon became the simplest means for the delivery of sound. Some truly outlandish concepts cropped up, and promptly died off—the fly-in (in Asbury Park, naturally), and a drive-in featuring individual screens.

Intermission concession ads became a low-grade art of their own; you can find dozens on YouTube, plugging all sorts of grisly eats with sub-Hanna Barbera animations. You will also find the immortal “Hello Young Lovers” ad, combating that signature cultural menace, of public displays of affection.

The fare is also more intriguing. Find Mexican at the Polynesian Mission Tiki in Montclair, California, pierogies in Montgomery, PA, and veggie burgers at the Delsea Drive-in in Vineland, NJ.

A number of theaters still survive on urban fringes. Bengies, in Baltimore is 58 years old; the Ford Drive-In in Dearborn, MI has a website that looks 58. The Blue Starlite, a recent opening in Austin, advertises itself as the “world’s first and only Mini-Urban Drive-in,” with an upcoming slate of Raising Arizona, Splash, Labyrinth, and The Dark Crystal. The Electric Dusk Drive-in, something of a pop-up in the Los Angeles Fashion district, is a place to catch All About Eve, E.T. and Vertigo.

And that’s not all; I can’t hazard a guess as to their progress in converting to digital but there’s a drive-in on top of a shopping center in Pretoria, South Africa, a 6,000 seat screen in Ahmedabad in India, and, for the summer, a temporary Fiat-sponsored drive-in within the Grand Palais in Paris.

Drive-ins remain strong in cultural memory; last year they got a 75th anniversary Google doodle? I may not recall many plot details from either The Amazing Panda Adventure or The Indian in the Cupboard from a long-ago stop at the Brownsville Drive-in in Grindstone, PA, but I vividly recall the visit.

Plenty of folks are busy curating the past: here’s an amazing collection ofdrive-in newspaper ads. (A double whammy of nostalgia, even!) ANd some are helping drive-ins into the future. In Abilene, the Town and Country Drive-in’s “Go Digital or Go Dark” effort averted the latter, raising $160,000 for conversion. The Skyline made its Kickstarter goal last month. (Just before that, Carl Weese made his own Kickstarter goal, to go forth and document shuttering drive-ins.) And if you want in on the act, there’s a nice and already-converted drive-in for sale in Tennessee.

Still, many others are well-short of their goals. The Skowhegan fundraiser has raised just $275 so far. However tattered they may be, the death of any drive-in is the death of something distinctive. Whether you’re on the side of pornography or church, remember that a drive-in without a screen is just a parking lot, and that’s not much use to anyone.

Anthony Paletta is a writer living in Brooklyn. He has written for The Wall Street Journal, Metropolis, The Daily Beast, Bookforum, and The Millions on urban policy, historic preservation, cinema, literature, and board wargaming. Previously for The Awl, he’s written about Luis Buñuel, Soviet architecture, the preservation of Brutalism, David Bowie's campy Berlin gigolo film and the screenplays of Tom Stoppard. Photo by Rae Allen. Number of drive-in stats by UDITOA.