Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The 1950s Drive-in Movies

The drive-in's peak popularity came in the late 1950s and early 1960s, particularly in rural areas, with some 4,000 drive-ins spreading across the United States. Among its advantages was the fact that a family with a baby could take care of their child while watching a movie, while teenagers with access to autos found drive-ins ideal for dates. Revenue is more limited than regular theaters since showings can only begin at twilight. There were abortive attempts to create suitable conditions for daylight viewing such as large tent structures, but nothing viable was developed.
In the 1950s, the greater privacy afforded to patrons gave drive-ins a reputation as immoral, and they were labeled "passion pits" in the media. During the 1970s, some drive-ins changed from family fare to exploitation films, as a way to offset declining patronage and revenue. In fact some producers in the 1970s would make exploitation films directly for the drive-in market. Also, during the 1970s, some drive-ins began to show pornographic movies in less family-centered time slots to bring in extra income. This became a problem because it allowed for censored materials to be available to a wide audience, some for whom viewing was illegal, and it was reliant upon the whims of local ordinances controlling such material. It also required a relatively remote location distant from populated areas such as towns and cities. This was one aspect of concern about the availability and uncontrollability of adult-centered media in the general public. The drive-in was open to abuse, such as the smuggling in of viewers in the trunks of cars to avoid paying for individual tickets. This had been a common ploy for younger patrons for decades, and eventually led to a per-car admission rate at many locations.

Many drive-ins devised very elaborate and sometimes quirky modes of comfort. Some drive-ins provided small propane heaters, attempting to entice their patrons to come in colder months. Some drive-ins provided a heating or air-conditioning system via underground ducts to heat or cool patrons. Audio systems varied greatly during the era of drive-ins. Some used portable speakers on trucks during the early days but this proved ineffective since the people in the front were blasted with sound while the people in the back could not adequately hear what was being said. One solution came in the form of small speakers which could be hooked onto the side window of the car. These caused damage to the window if one forgot to remove them before driving off, also they had a problem with sound quality and did not provide stereo sound. Later still, as in-car stereos became standard equipment, broadcast of the audio track on particular radio frequencies permitted the most efficient means of delivery.
During their height, some drive-ins used attention-grabbing gimmicks to boost attendance. They ranged from small airplane runways, unusual attractions such as a small petting zoo or cage of monkeys, actors to open their movies, or musical groups to play before the show. Some drive-ins held religious services on Sunday morning and evening, or charged a flat price per car on slow nights like Wednesday. The price was a dollar per car during "buck" nights in the 1950s and 1960s.

Over time, the economics of real estate made the large property areas increasingly expensive for drive-ins to operate successfully. Land became far too valuable for businesses such as drive-ins, which in most cases were summer-only. Widespread adoption of daylight saving time subtracted an hour from outdoor evening viewing time. These changes and the advent of color televisions, VCRs and video rentals led to a sharp decline in the drive-in popularity. Drive-ins were subject to the whim of nature as inclement weather often caused cancellations. They eventually lapsed into a quasi-novelty status with the remaining handful catering to a generally nostalgic audience, though many drive-ins continue to successfully operate in some areas.
Many drive-in movie sites remain, repurposed as storage or flea markets sites, often after residential housing or other higher value uses came to the lightly populated or unpopulated areas where the drive-ins were located. The largest drive-in theater in the world, the Fort Lauderdale Swap Shop, doubles as the world's largest daily flea market. Former drive-in properties in Michigan, for example, have become industrial parks, shopping centers, indoor theaters, and even churches (as with the Former Woodland Drive-In in Grand Rapids, MI). Another example of a drive in-turned-flea market is Spotlight 88 in North Sewickley Township, Beaver County, Pennsylvania, which ended business as a drive-in after an F3 tornado destroyed much of the property on May 31, 1985. As a joke after the tornado hit, the owners put up in the "now-showing" sign Gone with the Wind.

The year 2001 marked the inception of the "Do-It-Yourself" Drive-In, which utilized contemporary tools such as LCD projectors and micro-radio transmitters. The first was the Liberation Drive-In in Oakland, California, which sought to reclaim under-utilized urban spaces such as vacant parking lots in the downtown area. The following years have seen the rise of the "guerrilla drive-in" movement, in which groups of dedicated individuals orchestrate similar outdoor film and video screenings. Showings are often organized online, and participants meet at specified locations to watch films projected on bridge pillars or warehouses. The content featured at these screenings has frequently been independent or experimental films, cult movies, or otherwise alternative programming. The best known guerilla drive-ins include the Santa Cruz Guerilla Drive-In in Santa Cruz, California, MobMov in San Francisco, California and Hollywood, and most recently Guerilla Drive-In Victoria in Victoria, British Columbia. A pseudo-drive-in has been launched where the cars are provided by the organizer. In the UK the Volvo's urban Starlite Drive-in will be held inside the Truman Brewery in hip East London where the urban population will get the chance to watch classic films in a fleet of convertibles served by roller-skating waitresses.

As with indoor cinemas, the concession stand, also called a snack bar, is where a drive-in earns most of its profits. As a result, much of a drive-in's promotion is oriented toward the concession stand. The typical snack bar offers any food that can be served quickly, such as hot dogs, pizza, cheeseburgers, popcorn, soft drinks, coffee, hot chocolate, ice cream, candy and french fries. To send patrons to the concession stands, trailer advertisements called snipes were projected before the feature and during any intermissions. Some drive-in theater managers added children's playgrounds between the screen and the first row of cars. Others even went as far as adding miniature railroads, merry-go-rounds, and miniature golf courses. Concrete patios for lawn chairs were available at some drive-in theaters, as well as indoor seating for the concession stand. Due to the outdoor setting of drive-in theaters, movies were shown in the evenings.


  1. So happy I found your blog, Miss Retro, from you following mine!

    Looking forward to following you:)


  2. Thanks, Miss Retro. Love the post! I am publishing a serial novel on blogspot called A King in a Court of Fools about kids in 1956 and was looking for drive-in background information for the 12th episode and found you. Thanks for jogging my memory. We loved drive-ins (yes, I was a kid in the 50s). P.S. following your blog now.

  3. I grew up going to the Drive-in. My Mom would pour out the crackers from a Ritz Cracker box on to the table. We would make peanut butter and Ritz Cracker sandwiches then put them back in the box. That would be our snack for the Drive-in that night.

    We go to the Drive-In in Unadilla New York every summer. It's a blast and our kids love it.