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Summer Nights at the Drive-In

By Kami Spangenberg


In the early days of moviemaking, people watched silent films accompanied by a pianist outdoors on screens set up against a backdrop of open sky. Soon, movies moved indoors with the advent of the Nickelodeon. Indoor exhibition spaces set up in covered storefronts, these small theaters charged five cents for admission, flourishing from 1905 to 1915. As longer feature films proliferated, nickelodeons were replaced by fully appointed indoor movie theaters. By the 1930s America became a car-loving society and the automobile presented an opportunity to blend the family drive with entertainment.

Drive-in Trivia: Bengies Drive-In Theater in Middle River, Maryland boasts what is considered the biggest movie theater screen in America coming in at an enormous 52 feet high by 120 feet wide. The record was previously held by Algiers Drive-in in Detroit, Michigan, which had a screen that measured 216-feet wide covering 4,800 square feet when it first opened to a capacity of 1,500 cars in 1956 to show The Searchers (1956) western starring John Wayne.

A uniquely American invention, the first drive-in theater opened in June 1933 in Camden, New Jersey. One year later in 1934, Shankweiler's Drive-In Theater opened in Orefield, Pennsylvania and is still open today as the oldest operating drive-in theater in the world. In the 1960s and 1970s, drive-in theaters in the US peaked at more than 4,000 as families nationwide piled into the car for a night out at the movies.

When I was a kid, the only way I saw movies was from the back seat of my family’s car at the drive-in. –Forest Whitaker, actor

There is something magical about experiencing a movie against the night sky on the biggest screens on offer. The average screen at an indoor theater is between 30-90 feet wide and 10-30 feet tall; IMAX screens average 72-feet x 50-feet. Compare that to the average drive-in theater screen coming in at 50-100 feet wide and elevated at least 15 feet off the ground in a “larger than life” presentation.

There's something about the impact of a big screen that means something to me. —Kenneth Lonergan, filmmaker

During the pandemic years beginning in 2020, the drive-in theater saw a resurgence, with drive-ins generating 85% of North American box office revenue as Americans stayed away from indoor movie theaters. Old drive-in theaters dotted across rural America were spruced up and reopened; new “pop-up” drive-ins emerged in major cities. What was old became new again as families once again piled into their cars to escape to the movies.

The old-fashioned and often marginalized drive-in theater must now be recognized as one of the saviors of the [cinema] industry. —Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for Comscore, which tracks global box office data.

On any given summer day in the USA, about 325 drive-in theaters fire up their projectors at dusk, screening movies for patrons. Today, drive-in theaters are enjoying a renaissance as venues to see movies on the big screen—indeed the largest movie screens available—and engage in outdoor family entertainment often including mini golf and lawn games. Younger crowds will even find some of today’s drive-in theaters with cafes and bars.

Drive-in Trivia: The Ford Wyoming Drive-in in Dearborn, Michigan at a 3,000-car capacity is the largest operating drive-in in the United States. Open year-round despite the cold Michigan temperatures, the Ford Wyoming Drive-in offers in-car heaters to keep you warm.

To compete, drive-in theater owners have had to innovate and expand their offerings beyond movie screenings. D. Vogel, owner of the Bengies Drive-In near Baltimore, Md., has been quoted as saying the price of land is the real reason many drive-ins folded. “People would build on the outskirts of town, and the town would grow,” Vogel said. Many drive-in theaters were mom-and-pop businesses with children moving away and opting out of running the family business. The result was a drop in drive-in theaters across the country to today’s numbers.

Drive-in Trivia: The states with the most drive-in theaters currently are: New York = 30 Pennsylvania = 29 Ohio = 24

To attract movie-goers, most drive-in theaters screen first-run movies. However, many also play classic and fan-favorite films, offering movie-goers an opportunity to enjoy a beloved movie as part of the drive-in experience. Some, like Bengies Drive-In Theater host classic holiday movie showings. Others like Blue Fox Drive-In Oak Harbor, Washington screen vintage cartoons before feature films. Family-run Comanche Drive-In Buena Vista, Colorado boasts a mix of family-friendly features both present and past, screening classic movies like Grease (1978) and The Shining (1980).

Drive-in Trivia: Starlite (sometimes Starlight) is the most popular drive-in theater name. Current search yields over 20 in the US and Canada with some version of the name.

Built in 1948, the Mahoning Drive-In Theater in Leighton, Pennsylvania fully commits to an exclusively retro 35mm film program, which is presented reel-to-reel via original 1940s Simplex projectors. Programming includes weekend events focused on cult films like Godzilla-Palooza featuring original films from the 1950s and other subcultures like Schlock-O-Rama VIII screening films like It Came from Outer Space (1953), The Giant Claw (1957), 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957) and more. Such films bring out film fans looking for an immersive experience, with movie-goers often dressing up in costume and engaging in games like a body bag relay race during the theater’s Camp Blood horror film fest. Events like this keep patrons coming back to the Mahoning, which has created real community for its film fan patrons.

The cinema is really built for the big screen and big sound, so that a person can go into another world and have an experience. —David Lynch, filmmaker

Most of the 350+ drive-in theaters dotted across the US are privately held businesses, trying to make it in their communities. They’re competing against indoor theaters and the proliferation of streaming services. Yet truly nothing can beat the experience drive-in theaters offer movie-goers—the big screen and the night sky. There’s just no competition.


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Drive-In Theater: Know Before You Go

No running engines: Most drive-ins prohibit you from running your car during the movie due to the exhaust since many people sit outside their cars to watch the movie.


Tune in for sound: While some drive-in theaters still have pole speakers for movie audio, most drive-in theaters instead broadcast the movie audio on an FM channel. Use your car radio or bring along a portable radio if you want to sit outside your car. Some drive-in theaters also rent FM radios for patron use.


Power up: Your car battery should be able to power the radio for a two-hour movie. For double features, simply start your car between movies, letting it idle for about five minutes to recharge the battery.


Rain or shine: Most drive-in theaters operate even in the rain or bad weather.


Snack time: Some drive-ins let you bring in your own food and drinks or buy an outside food permit that lets you do so. Like traditional theaters, drive-ins rely on concession sales to make a profit. Support your local business by patronizing the concession stand.


In or Out: Most drive-ins allow you to sit outside your vehicle and tailgate. Only a few require you to stay in your car. Be courteous and stay within your space and ensure your activities are not blocking the screen view of your fellow movie-goers.


By the Carload: In general, drive-in theaters are very cost effective. Most show double features or even triple features for one price generally less than or equal to indoor theaters. For one admission price, you get to see two first run movies. Many drive-ins charge by the carload driving admission price down if you take a full vehicle of people. Some also allow leashed pets and ask that you pick up after them.


Mom & Pop Ops: Most drive-in theaters are family-owned businesses with independent business practices. Some are cash-only businesses, and you may not be able to book tickets online. Plan your night out at the movies and support these small businesses by checking their websites for particulars before you head out.

 

Kami Spangenberg, ClassicCouple.com and ClassicCoupleAcademy.com, is an independent film industry journalist committed to raising awareness about the art of filmmaking and film preservation.


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