OK, I know it’s hard. Very very hard to imagine spring right now. This good ole song really helps pull out that elation as when you cleared the box office window to see who’s in the lot. Laid back and rolling through the rows to find that place there next to your friends, oh and girls. Mise as well grab a burger for me too. Good luck finding our cars (moved to the back) once you disappear into the snack bar! Good times.
To my knowledge this pile of film and paper is all that’s left to the drive in of my youth. Just before it was bulldozed into history I stopped in to find a collapsing vandalized building with its contents strewn all over. Running out of the bathroom were crinkled strips of film which I had a hunch but dreaded to find in such condition, the snack bar footage. It was. Tangled, busted, weather worn, you name and behold it, the first treasure of the leprechauns rainbow.
By the mid 1980’s intermission footage had passed into history. Without the internet, reproduction sources or any fan network, the rejected abused and forgotten group of cells was the only connection to something readily apparent never to happen again.
Treasure two is a hand typed flyer by the author Terrance Wharton, discovered 13 years ago when crossing paths with Derrick of Drive In Film. It was a good read and the memories of what he wrote were still very fresh then. I nodded, smiled and took that flyer home to keep with the old crinkly footage. When reading it again the other day, I realized what sort of feelings these old promotions once elicited, and how different this footage is viewed now.
Like many things today, intermission shorts have never had it so good. Heck even Filmack is re-releasing some of their own classics, and the great company of Screen Attractions is creating a new stable of shorts and restoring to perfection old offerings. CDs from sources such as Drive In Film or Something Weird has hours of clips that you can play on your own TV or makeshift home drive in.
YouTube is an endless source of quick and hazy snack bar video, that even now I can go and find something that I’ve never seen before.
In fact so prevalent and varied are the offerings today, some drive in fans may have forgotten just what made those films so special to begin with. Taken for granted they could be again put on a shelf no higher than those once saved from the wet cement floor.
With all credit given to Terrance is his essay on what those masterful and independent creations meant to us, a post generation of drive in patrons. Printed many years ago, the black and white photos and text appear as they did in the flyer for authenticity.
Show Starts In Ten Minutes
By Terrance Jennings Wharton
There was a time when an evening spent at the local drive-in theatre always guaranteed the viewing of at least one unique and entertaining film: the “Come Visit Our Modern Concession Stand…” production that both accompanied and defined the intermission between features.
Some years ago a drive-in owner was recounting (for the author’s benefit) the all-time highest grossing motion pictures at his three theatres (THE TEN COMMANDMENTS and THE GODFATHER were the top two). When I asked if that included the snackbar countdown his face broke into a broad smile. “Over the years that’d have to rank up there with any of them! I’ve never thought about it like that – all those kids! That’s also how we were able to get away with admitting the whole carload on a flat admission…”
In 1952 Armour & Co. introduced the initial live-action refreshment stand advertisement, or “trailer”. While animated segments of the “Come On Out To The Lobby…” ilk had existed for years, audiences had never been confronted with “actual” images of patrons enjoying handy snackbar treats. Presented free of charge to nearly 600 drive-ins, this one-minute short (featuring a jingle by Bing Crosby’s Starlighters) heralded that it was time for intermission – and with it – a refreshing drink, box of popcorn, and delicious Armour frank: “…if drinks are what you want – we got’em –hot or cold, just holler; all drinks taste good with Armour franks – you bet your bottom dollar; if your taste for popcorn’s set – we have it hot and waiting; for an extra treat just buy a bag – it’s fun to eat when dating…
From drive-ins everywhere reports of dramatically inflated concession sales began pulling up at Armour’s Chicago offices. A Missouri ozoner experienced a 25% increase in hotdog sales the very first night the trailer was shown, and total snackbar receipts for the season were 30% higher than those from the previous year. When the new clip debuted at the Big Sandy Drive-In, in Portland, OR, four-times the normal amount of wieners were sold, and an Armour representative (attending the theatre with his family) hurriedly placed an ‘emergency” order for an additional 72 lb. of the franks.
Several hundred similar responses prompted Armour to release eight new trailers for the 1953 season. While the true suggestive/metaphoric potential of the screen-size frankfurter was yet to be fully realized (e.g., the animated “Circus Of Performing Treats” production, from Filmack Studios, wherein the domineering bun coerces the subservient hotdog to turn a series of obedient flip-flops before being “rewarded” by its suddenly permissive partner), Armour had conclusively struck a responsive chord and served to open the flood-gates for “live-action” snack-bar footage of varying depth, duration and quality (in the trade vernacular, all footage, aside from animation, was generally described as live action): from limpid, lackluster stills of inedible, would-be food, on up to a far more ambitious ( even moderately obsessive and overblown considering their limited scope) product layouts utilizing excessive stop-motion razzle-dazzle and post production optical-printing, culminating in pop-up/overlapping/kaleidoscopic imagery quite unlike anything else. (The Alexander Film Co. dreamed-up various curiously inspired examples of the latter variety).
Most (however, not all) intermission reels were structured around a “clock-shell”: comprised of a 20-30 second introduction, or “header”; 10 second inserts counting down each minute; and a 10 second closing, or “tag”; this basic framework amounted to approximately 2 minutes of actual screen time. The remaining 5-10 minutes (many “10 Minute” shows were striking exercises in temporal compression/expansion) were nothing less than a blank canvas to the local drive-in projectionist (that inadvertent/invariable master of cinema-montage) whose abrupt, sledgehammer method of jump-cutting and juxtaposing footage (from myriad of sources) unfailingly produced an amazingly collage-like body of work – worthy of repeated viewing (as in every visit to the drive-in).
Indeed, in an era prior to mass MTV retinal overload there were no other cinematic shorts available for widespread public viewing that were as crazily mixed-up as the local snackbar assemblage: a crude-yet-complex conglomeration enriched by virtue of startling shifts in content; equally head-shaking jumps from color to b&w and back; rhythmically jarring (and frequently “frame” altering) secondary cement and/or tape splices (earmarking varying degrees of missing footage); brutal emulsion scratches, grimy accumulations; shredded sprocket holes; moisture damage (read: mildew) physically stretched stock; and a signature washed-out carbon-arc luminosity bordering on the ethereal… all told, a gradual evolution nurtured by countless rushes through a blinding, many-toothed gauntlet at 90 feet-per-minute.
The following was only a partial inventory of the drive-in projectionist’s considerable bag-of-tricks: persistent clock shells, produced primarily by Filmack, Alexander, and National Screen; narrated live-action food clips, often with disembodied human hands performing sundry task; goofy animated Leprechauns, Martians, Professors, and Sentries (from National Screen Service); near hypnotic/escapist animated interludes unwinding to approximately sedate musical scores; toe-tapping barbecue pitches from Castleberry’s, Smithfield, (most often tinted green); Drizzle Gard Rain Visor ads; Butter Cup Popcorn sing-a-longs; simple minded color slides of kittens, puppies, birds, and flowers set to vapid easy-listening arrangements (originally included in a self-contained countdown clock, and often recut by projectionists); single sentence, narrated stills (e.g., “Sizzling Hotdogs Bursting With Juicy Goodness…”) that led sharp punctuation to the proceedings when hitting the screen; Neil Armstrong up on the Moon; detailed Bernz-O-Matic in-car heater instructions; local merchant spots; catchy soft drink commercials for national and regional bottlers; United States Armed Forces recruiting promotions; dreary public service announcements; vast vistas of farm crops, with machinery harvesting and patriotic strains swelling from the in –car metal speakers; and, of course, the “… Please Return The Speaker Before You Leave The Theatre… AND DON’T EVER LET US CATCH YOU STEALING ONE…” reminder/admonishment.
Beyond the above-mentioned arbitrary editing and subsequent resplicing of said footage, the very image itself was often drastically distorted via projection through an anamorphic lens, a common practice when both features on the bill were in widescreen format (it was understandably convenient to leave the relatively cumbersome optics in place, rather than switch to the “flat” lens for a mere 10 minutes). Static, screen-filling views of sandwiches, popcorn boxes, and drink cups (assuredly minimalistic and absurd-looking when enlarged to such monolithic proportions) became even more strangely stylized and surreal when they were amazingly stretched-way-out horizontally (like a magnified vision from some futuristic industrial designer’s mental sketchpad), with form warping content to plasticized perfection.
Some years back, a personal viewing of the rapid-fire, found footage short films of Bruce Conner (A MOVIE, AMERICA IS WAITING) brought to mind the mishmash nature of the drive-in snackbar film, where contextual fusing of obliquely incongruous subject matter could sometimes engender newfound meaning. A memorable intermission countdown from the Skyview Cruise-In Lancaster, OH (that played intact through the 1989 season), included a cutaway from the animated “Ten Little Indians” clock-shell (produced by the Alexander Film Co.) to a title card proclaiming, “This Is YOUR Land, AMERICA! Demonstrate Your FAITH In It In Your EVERY Action…” then abruptly cut back to the cartoon Indians (at once an unintentional subversion of content and prime example of “1 Minute” in “intermission time” compacted to barely 20 seconds).
Eventually taken for granted by the majority of patrons (existing as little more than ambient cinematic wallpaper), these odd mini-wonders provided for more discriminating movie-goers that perfectly twisted transition between screenings of such eccentric fare as THE CORPSE GRINDERS and THE UNDERTAKER AND HIS PALS. (Author’s note: at a memorable 10th anniversary booking of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, at the E. Main Drive-In, in Columbus, OH, a smattering of cheers and groans alike could be heard from several cars when the local Temp-Taste Barbeque commercial [starring Ohio Steak & Barbecue’s own Dan Enderle] appeared on the screen).
Now that the entire economic nature of film production/distribution has changed irrevocably and no more offbeat, independent “drive-in” features are being released theatrically, the last of the surviving intermission countdown reels are exceedingly rare and especially welcome movie going experience (too often flanked by comparatively unimaginative and insignificant corporate Hollywood reoccurrences…). To presently watch one of these cultural time capsules count off the minutes is to experience time quite frozen.
(The author extends heartfelt thanks to all of the drive-in owners, managers, and projectionists. The Armour sales information is contained in the article “Franks Mean Sales” which originally appeared in the 1955-56 Theatre Catalog.)
The following is a partial list of film service companies who distributed and/or produced motion picture trailers of one manner, or another.
Alexander Film Co……………………………………. Colorado Springs, CO
Alpha Film Labs……………………………………….. Baltimore, MD
Ambuter Motion Picture Co. ………………… Boston, MA
Clyde Anderson Film Co. ………………………. Salt lake City, UT
Argo Film Production …………………………….. St. Louis, MO
Associated Film Exchange ……………………… Salt lake City, UT
A.H. Barber, Sr. ………………………………………. St Louis, MO
Barnett Film Services …………………………….. New Orleans, LA
Cine-Graphic Film Labs Inc. …………………… St Louis, MO
Cinema Concepts Theatre Service ……….. Atlanta, GA
Clark Service Inc. …………………………………. Buffalo, NY
Lewy Studios ……………………………………….. Baltimore, MD
Lippincott Pictures Inc. ………………………….. Philadelphia, PA
Master Motion Picture Co. …………………….. Boston, MA
Moondial Manufacturing Corp. ………………. Los Angeles, CA
Monarch Theatre Supply ………………………… Memphis, TN
Monmental Films Inc. …………………………….. Baltimore, MD
Motion Picture Advertising Service ………… New York, NY
Motion Picture Service Company ……………. San Francisco, CA
National Film Service ………………………………. New Orleans, LA
National Screen Service …………………………. New York, NY
National Theatre Supply Co. ………………….. Indianapolis, IN
Nationwide Pictures ……………………………. Dallas, TX
Oran Productions ……………………………….. St Louis, MO
Pacific Title & Art Studios …………………… Los Angeles, CA
Parrot Film Services ……………………………. De Moines, IA
Pictosound Productions …………………….. St Louis, MO
Premier Film & recording Corp. …………. St Louis, MO
Quality Film Labs ……………………………….. Baltimore, MD
M.B. Russell ……………………………………….. Salt Lake City, UT
Stansbury Photo Films ………………………. Baltimore, MD
Stark Films …………………………………………. Baltimore, MD
Strickland Film Co. ……………..……………….. Atlanta, GA
Shelby Stork & Co. ……………..……………….. St Louis, MO
Simon Film Service ……………………….……… Detroit, MI
Sly Fox Films ………………………………………… Minneapolis, MN
Standard Screen Service ……………………… Los Angeles, CA
Technisonic Studios Inc. ……………………… St Louis, MO
Theatre Screen Advertising …………………. Denver, CO
Tri-State Theatre Service …………………….. Memphis, TN
Universal Images Ltd. ………………………….. Kansas City, MO
UTA Inc. …………………………………………………. Los Angeles, CA
Welgot Trailer Service …………………………… New York, NY
Wilding Picture Productions …………………. St Louis, MO
Fitting that the first reproduced sound at a drive in theater was accomplished with the help of the Radio Corporation of America. In an earlier post it was discussed how the Camden Drive In Theatre, and subsequent copy cats, used large speakers mounted on the screen tower to deliver the motion picture sound track to the audience. Camden had three large horns, developed and manufactured by RCA especially for this new automobile theatre. RCA was no stranger to Hollingshead, whose company’s facilities were neighbors with that of RCA. RCAs solution to the problem was given the name “Controlled Directional Sound” but other than a volume slide and the direction that the speakers faced there was little control. Complaints about excessive noise became the rallying cry against drive ins as they blossomed across the country. Reacting to this early pioneers of drive in cinema tried to rework the bull horn concept, from smaller units placed in front of each parking space, to blasting the sound through grates upon which the car parked. None of these proved satisfactory and in some cases exasperated the problem. It seemed that villagers with torches, pitchforks, and zoning laws would put an end to Dr. Hollingshead’s expanding creation. Within 7 years though, the folks at RCA had come up with a lasting solution.
Technology had progressed and RCA designers came up with a great concept in which the basic configuration would last for years. A personal speaker for each automobile customer, a hook that could hang over the door window, and a variable control switch for volume solved most comfort and noise issues. Just as these were being introduced to the market so was the US to the Second World War. Production of these units and drive in expansion stopped.
Six years later and the end of the war, both Drive Ins and RCA came back with a vengeance. Drive Ins opened at an astounding rate. RCA speakers were right on their tail.
Rightfully RCA began touting itself as the innovator and of having the best positioned drive in speaker in the field.
Over time they triumphed in their marketing, for sales were comparatively astronomical. In retrospect and opinion, RCA speakers seem to be the best option of price versatile vs. quality. Even now they are the first to be found at swap meets and garage sales. If one would like to buy a new set, they are still being manufactured through Detriotdiecast. (link = http://www.detroitdiecast.com/detroit-diecast-rca-drive-in-theatre-movie-speaker-set-with-junction-box-light.html )
Within a short time the RCA speaker streamlined itself into what has become the iconic drive in symbol.
The question of the day is how great is the RCA drive in speaker and can it hold up to the vintage ad copy which touts it? That’s what we aim to figure out through a trial, test, a tongue, and a cheek.
First we set the bar with RCAs own ad copy.
Selecting five standards which are highlighted in yellow blocks, we can proceed with the trial. Each test performed against the standard has been video recorded. They then will be judged for the actual result versus accuracy of the ad claim.
Ok, this is a given if tested within certain life of use limits. However finding the right balance of amplitude and the resistance of a degrading potentiometer takes some courage. Out of 1 point, the score is 0.75
Trials have proved that indeed this unit can be closed up in a car window. However, closed must be used as a relative term. Closed to the untrained unscientific eye is ¼” gap between glass and seal. A good windy thundershower can bring in a soaking of rain. To mosquitoes, black flies, and other creepy crawly’s this distance is the Grand Canyon.
Foolproof also depends on the fool. We once hired a fool specialist trained in the scientific method who in fact could pull the knotted wire away from the speaker, or mash the spring loaded volume control knob. He could also dump a coke though the vents onto the speaker cone, resulting in a muffled sticky scuba noise. The test was null and the fool promoted to manager.
Out of the 2 points, the score is 1.0 I guess in context, 1.5
No video for this test. The same upwardly mobile fool turned on the cameraman as an added expense.
Within the safety constraints of the speaker post, and the post being unaffected by automobile impact, the speaker unit generally fairs well. Using the speaker as a tether ball and banging it back and forth around the post with a baseball bat has had some ill effect. Granted however, the simple yet rugged design itself held up well.
Out of 1 point, the score is 0.75
The most interesting and costly test. The majority of the trial was accomplished through sneaking the test by as a subcontract using a specialist with heavy equipment. The results were surprising.
Impressively the unit did indeed dry out to reproduce again. Which is great news for the insurer, not so much for the insuree. If I had to guess, within a year the cones were crumbling, connections corroding, and potentiometers freezing. Flooding not covered by warranty of course.
However under controlled conditions and the actual claim of the ad, it scores 1 out of 1 point.
This could have been a very tough test. After almost 50 years a majority of Starlight finishes look like this and a light reactivity trail would be impossible.
Luck would have it that for 25 cents a mint Starlight replacement front was found at the local resale shop. By placing this front onto a used unit the test can begin.
Fits like a saddle on a pig, but looks great for the test. No wonder the front was stuck away and never used.
Sadly, this test was a comparative failure. However, it would work very well as flounder camouflage on the ocean floor.
Out of 1 point, the score is 0
Total Trials Result –
The final score, out of 6 possible points is…. 4. 67% is not too bad considering the fanciful claims of the ad and seriousness of the testing. In reality the RCA was a dang good speaker, and in the end achieved the greatest amount of sales. It was also the most imitated, a sure sign of success.
Just over a year ago the threat of digital projection hung over drive ins like the snakey shadow of a gallows man’s noose. Contrary to the dire predictions many drive ins survived the shakeout and have set on a course to a solid future. Granted and sadly of course, some haven’t. Can the worse be over? Or will the advancement and increasingly competitive pricing of digital projection lead to another problem of over saturation. Too hot, or too cold. It’s interesting to look at this well written article by Anthony Paletta when the water was cool and negative fears wrapped drive ins theaters everywhere.
With all credit to Mr. Palleta, here is the article from June 20th, 2013.
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 Timesestimated 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 Outsidersstarts 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, andThe 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.
Something that has eluded me this past month (I guess I better get with the times) is that the restaurant chain Johnny Rockets announced the creation of a new division of sorts, called Johnny Rockets Route 66. Within this division there will be four new types of food outlets, each outlet having a different approach to retail. The most focused part of this campaign will be the creation of drive-thru window outlets, basically competing with standard fast foods anywhere in blueprint USA. The next two concepts are a mobile food truck, and a mysterious sounding pop up restaurant. Fourth and most importantly relevant to this blog is a drive-in-movie concept.
Johnny Rockets has partnered the company USA-Drive Ins, a film distribution firm dedicated to bringing back the drive in theater. Together the goal is to build 200 drive ins across the States. The initial locations have been reported to be in Texas, California, and in USA DIs home state of Indiana.
A description of these new drive ins would include a 40 to 70 foot inflatable portable screen, and the ever intriguing pop up Johnny Rockets Route 66 restaurant. A single franchisee would own both the restaurant and the theater. Each of these locations should have room for up to 500/ 700 cars. Another version of the drive in concept is a temporary screen and a Johnny Rockets Route 66 food truck catering to smaller film events. At both customers use their car radio tuning into an FM broadcaster to listen to the motion picture soundtrack. Also reported is an app that allows use of an IPod as a window speaker.
Bill Devera of USA-Drive Ins sees the concept as a win win situation. There are 500 to 700 cars per showing, with about 1,200 to 2,000 people attending Bill estimates. And Johnny Rockets Chief Development Officer James Walker is also very positive. Drive-ins aren’t just about the movie, they’re about the whole experience,” Walker says. “You’re able to interact with each other more than you would in an enclosed theater.”
This seems like a very interesting concept and I wish them well. Any friend encouraging drive in theaters is a friend of this blog.
Contributed to the DuhDuh Drive In, the world’s first Minecraft drive in theater!
Screen looming in the distance.
Inside the screen tower there’s plenty of room for storage.
Even living quarters in there.
Projection booth. From the two ports and viewing window it looks like they are still running film in the digital world.
One big digital projector on the inside though.
Looks good Josh, thank you. I know where I’d be if I were a villager, watching the zombies and creepers terrorize the only big screen in town.