There Are Now Just 357 American Drive-In Theaters

by Anthony Paletta

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.

Drive-ins, for all their family friendliness, were regarded, likely with fair reason, as hothouses of immorality, and were the target of assorted municipal ban efforts from the permanently puritanical. In a different age a darkened car in a darkened lot conjoured all sorts of images of licentiousness — and why wouldn’t it? One Plattsburgh, NY drive-in patron related tales of guests swimming from no-fun Quebec to catch a picture.

The image of drive-ins as charnel houses for heavy petting (or Much Worse!) preceded, for the most part, the shift towards exploitation fare that has come to characterize drive-ins in much of the current cultural imagination. Not all drive-ins were showing B films from the start, but naturally the nature of B films changed as that very concept shifted from description of programming status to one of mindset and attitude, from Son of Sinbad to Cannibal Girls. At a certain point programming did distinctly shift. As families were lured by television or the multiplex, so out-of-home offerings grew more explicitly trashy. There is a reason why “Drive In Cult Classics” boasts two installments (featuring Peter Cushing, John Savage and Donald Pleasance), why TCM programmed a series of “Drive In Double Features” in 2011.

Some owners sought to please everyone. Elizabeth McKeon and Linda Everett’s Cinema Under the Stars: America’s Love Affair With Drive-In Movie Theaters quotes one South Carolina theater owner:

The Pentecostals will line up for Pat Boone’s The Cross and the Switchblade and anything with an Art Linkletter voice-over. But then there’s a lot of folks down here who would just as soon see what Linda Lovelace is doing too….”

Over time the Lovelace v. Boone balance shifted radically in a single direction (for a while), but the drive-in did play an intriguing role, according to The Atlantic, in prefiguring the modern mega-church.

Robert Schuller, preacher behind Richard Neutra’s Crystal Cathedral and assorted other preacherly activities, held earlier services at a drive-in, advertising “The Orange Church meets in the Orange Drive-In Theater where even the handicapped, hard of hearing, aged and infirm can see and hear the entire service without leaving their family car.”

The cultural imaging of drive-ins on screen has therefore been a bit complicated. James Cagney hides out from the police in the Sun-Val drive in (watching a Gary Cooper movie on the development of aircraft carriers). John Travolta sets up playground equipment in Grease. The central romantic conflict in Coppola’s The Outsiders starts at the drive-in. In Back to the Future III, Marty McFly sets off at the Pohatchee Drive-in (where a marquee hilariously proclaims a program of “Francis in the Navy, Ma and Pa Kettle at Waikiki, and Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy.” Dead-End-Drive In, a superb Ozploitation film, imagines a dystopian future where distaff youth are confined in a drive-in and subjected to a constant barrage of trash cinema. Imagine putting up an electric fence around Burning Man and you’re partway to a screenshot. These youths, too, understood a thing or two about the drive in.

“What picture are we seeing?”

“That’s not what you’re here for, is it?”


Then, of course, in Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets, the killer is ultimately subdued by Boris Karloff at a drive in screening of Karloff’s The Terror. His choice wasn’t accidental. In a 1972 interview, he said:

Cars are solitary and insular. This was one of the points in Targets. The people at the drive-in are sitting in these enclosed little cubicles where they’re not aware of the killings going on outside. I hate drive-ins. That was the main point of that sequence. Go to a drive-in on pain of death…. You’re closed off in a car, with a horrible screen you can’t see very well. Awful sound in that tinny little speaker. Sitting with two other people. It’s as bad as sitting at home with television…. It’s true that you go out, but you never have to get out of your car. Horrible.

Then came the rise of the multiplex, the rise of television, the rise of VHS, and importantly, continued suburbanization, which put a premium on the land occupied by drive-ins. (Here’s another moment to complain about Walmart, if that’s your sort of thing.) Theaters had been pursuing diversification of revenue by a variety of measures, including daytime flea markets. but most succumbed to this range of pressures.

The thing about this collapse though is, though, that it was never total, and holdouts remain. My home state of Pennsylvania boasts 33 drive-ins. (There are apparently just 8 in Michigan

.) Ohio has about 30; those that remain are delightfully varied.

Most are in small towns, fairly remote from other cinemas, but some are urban. These are frequently family-oriented, boasting amenities somewhere between the character of the ballfield and the amusement park — at others you can still catch traditional midnight movie fare. Even the most anodyne possesses more color than the multiplex, starting with frequent broadcasts of vintage concessions ads and advancing up to unique current-day offerings.

Still busy extracting revenue out of those fallow daylight hours is the Fort Lauderdale Swap Shop. It’s a 14-screen drive-in by night and the world’s largest flea market by day. Wellfleet Cinemas on Cape Cod features adjacent mini-golf. The Amusement Park Drive-In in Billings, Montana advertises itself as the only drive-in ringed by a roller coaster (yes, this is the land of superlatives). Big Sky Drive-in in Midland, Texas shows football games on the big screen.

Most programming is family-friendly, but frequently more varied than you’d think. Full Moon Drive-In in San Diego is also a spot to catch Driving Miss Daisy, Rebel Without a Cause, and American Psycho. The Admiral Twin in Tulsa reports banner attendance at its Outsiders and Rumble Fish screenings. Marfa, Texas, is getting in on the act with a suitably out-there Ballroom Marfa sort of drive-in.

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.