Sky is falling, and falling… this has been a recording

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.

There Are Now Just 357 American Drive-In Theaters

 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?”

Nope.

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 Interesting This Way Comes

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.

nc0nbo-b88203348z.120140916154550000g8o52hpi.10Johnny 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.

 

Cyb In

Contributed to the DuhDuh Drive In, the world’s first Minecraft drive in theater!

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Screen looming in the distance.

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Nice playground.

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Inside the screen tower there’s plenty of room for storage.

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Even  living quarters in there.

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Projection booth.  From the two ports and viewing window it looks like they are still running film in the digital world.

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One big digital projector on the inside though.

5Coming attractions.

6Large concession area at the snack bar.

7Another view, ice cream, and things go better with Coke.

8Lots of room behind the counter too, seen are three fountain drink dispensers.

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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.

Where’s Waldo?

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In our last cliff hanger episode Mr. Richard Hollingshead and his associates had brought the concept of the first ever auto-rium to life in the spring of 1932.  Through diligence and promotion the national press spotlighted it and this led to others copying or using the basic idea across the nation.  Mr. Hollingshead felt it prudent that his company should concentrate its efforts on protecting the patent and promoting the franchise of Park In Theatres.

By 1935, the Camden Drive In Theatre was sold including all equipment and land.

The new owner continued operating at that site for only one year, in 1936 whatever could be used of the operation made its way up to Union NJ.  The Camden Drive In went dark and likely also became the first ever to fall to increasing property values with the land being sold at profit.

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Blandly and without historical marker, commercial and residential sprawl overcame the area and time forgot anything of significance.

What has become of the location of the first drive in?

For those interested in physically paying homage to the original site, it sits on what is now known as 2901 Admiral Wilson Boulevard ( US Rout 30).  This location between Camden and the Airport Circle has dropped any route distinction with Admiral Wilson and Crescent Boulevard.

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For those more cautious, Google maps come to the rescue.

A quick search of the address and wala, there it is marked with an upside down red teardrop.

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Looking at the larger picture, the central point chosen proves again that Mr. Hollingshead and his partners likely took their time and researched traffic patterns, routes, and destinations.

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Zooming in we find the Ben Franklin Bridge leading from Philadelphia into Camden, route 30 going on to Airport Circle,  which at the time was a destination unto itself as well as a portal to many points beyond.

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A nice little feature of Google maps is that you can switch over to a satellite image with the map markings still in place.  Here the growth that overcame Pennsauken Township can readily be seen.

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A little closer..6

Airport Circle exists in some state, the bend in the Cooper River is still there, and the riverbank park system survived and actually grew in size.

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The next great feature of Google maps allows aerial views at an angle, which we next will apply to our significant area.

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The Zinman Furs building and Lee Avenue is roughly the location. Such side streets had been added after the theater was long gone, and since the route of the boulevard itself probably has been massaged over the years, it’s hard to be exact.

However, if we back out and create an overlay of an old aerial image and the new.…

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….we get a pretty good idea where the theater was once located.

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Another fantastic feature is called street view, and it goes like this.  This next image is the closest thing to what would have been the entrance at the Park In or Camden Drive In Theatre.

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Around to the back and we see a very large enclosed parking lot.

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Although the ramp system is long gone, this large lot in the back of Zinman’s calls out for a tribute celebration dedicated to the first drive in!  Some cars are already facing the proper direction; all they need is a screen and the show can begin.

Back to the entrance of Zinman’s and Lee Avenue another semi overlay can be done, but this time not as clean or convincing.  Ghost images removed from the old Drive In entrance photo are imposed onto the current photo in what were the probable locations.

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Out of the mist…

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Completely subjective, based on what I can tell from the old photos and descriptions that are available.

Isn’t technology grand?

UPDATE  10/2/14                  A great post over at Driveinadventures from someone who lives near the original # 1 Drive In Theatre, with some nice on the ground pics of the area today.  A good thing to be found at:

erytrerhttp://driveinadventures.wordpress.com/2014/06/06/the-first-drive-in-theatre-ever-june-6-1933/

Thank you~

Because It Was First

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It was just about summer and it felt it.  Temperatures had been in the 90’s with the air still holding warm and muggy into the evening hours. 
 All day Jersey Bombers had been waiting patiently ready to unfold their wings and go hunting mortals. They weren’t the only ones sweating it out.  The success of this new enterprise would be a turning point for a man waist deep in his thirties with a hopeful answer to an uncertain future.

How and why the drive in theatre came into being so early is often seen as a feat unto itself. And yet if we look at the catalyst which brought it to life, it seems the timing was perfect.

The life of the man accredit with the invention of the drive in theatre calendared those forces which launched it and ultimately led to its demise.

His birth in the year of 1900 coincided with a great blaze that razed the Hollingshead family’s factory, and soon a conversion of a business catering to horse harnesses over to automotive.  A twist of fate and a wise choice, for the following years were heady times as automobiles became no longer a luxury but a necessity.  Quickly America embraced the idea of personal mobility, and as other forms of transportation started to wane or flounder, a vast support structure of roads, bridges, traffic laws, gas stations, food services, and of course care products for cars exploded.

Located in Camden NJ, the Whiz Automotive Products plant grew along with the fortunes of the Hollingshead family.

Reproduction Sign

Reproduction Sign

By the time he was 18 years old WW1 had come and gone, young Richard found himself working at the now thriving family business, and Camden had a local war hero in Mr. Admiral Wilson.  The boulevard named in the Admirals honor would later hold the first Drive In Theater.

Times probably couldn’t have seemed better to a young prosperous person as he rose up the ladder. The 1920’s had seen cars grow in comfort and reliability, the seeds of suburbia sprouting, and movies becoming a major force in entertainment.  Already by 1925 members of the Motion Picture Theatre Owners of America had held meetings on developing outdoor theatres involving cars.  However at that time it was concluded that no one would sit in an auto to see a movie.  Indoor exhibitors remained in lock step with the film distributors.  New and exciting shows would remain inside controlled profitable conditions.

Sitting outside in the open air with the elements would be left to left to those traveling novelties who displayed surplus product.

From Recent Ebay Auction

Those entrepreneurs’ techniques consisted of a budget minded projector mounted to a vehicle, a makeshift screen, and sprocket worn films shown to audiences sitting on benches, bleachers, or blankets.  Dramatic plots unfolded as outdated Agriculture Dept. films played out as a main feature.

Mr. Hollingshead Jr has been considered a film buff, however it’s likely that his viewings occurred in the more upscale venues and those venerable outdoor expositions probably had little influence his later inventiveness.

I suspect deeper and more primal reasons for his inspiration.

Sitting in his car on stallway six Mr Hollingshead thought back on what a whirlwind it had been.  A proud man from a proud family finding himself temporarily out of work, but he could make it, strike out on his own.  Just a few years ago he was tending to the family’s fortune as a plant manager in an ever expanding company.  Today a far cry from those booming days when he went into Canada to organize a subsidiary plant there.  Those lessons had served him well.  You do not sit around and wait for lady luck to come knocking, if it’s going to happen, you best be making it happen.

At age 29 the stock market crashed around him and with sure speed by the time he was in his thirties his company and the nation was in a depression.  The banks had temporarily taken over the family business and he had found himself without employment at age 32.  Like many others from his generation this led to a great aversion of debt.

Mr. Hollingshead’s Grandfather created a mercantile from scratch; his own father formed Whiz Auto Products dating back to making soap in a kitchen sink.  Now it was time for him to grab those bootstraps and get to it himself.

It is said his version of the four basic needs were food, clothing, cars, and movies.

His first notion was a unique type of gas station.  This station would start out with a Hawaiian theme to draw customers to its doors.  Items from the line of Whiz Products could be promoted there, and full repair services could be offered.  A restaurant service would be available; patrons could eat while waiting for their cars.  Movies could also be shown to pass the time.  Almost as an afterthought.

That is where a great jump happens, and the events that led to a focus on movies, and specifically movies shown while sitting in the automobile are sketchy.  I have read a spattering of explanations from deductive reasoning eliminating the service station aspect, to his own mother being a larger framed person and not being able to enjoy indoor cinemas, to other points that almost sound more like after the fact ad copy.

Yet whatever the case, roughly between the years 1932 and 1933 he did decide on a plan action.  He experimented and worked out the details, built a model of the project, patented the idea, obtained financing with other principles to enable construction, found a location, built the large facility, and made the reality of opening day.  This being true, it seems unlikely that any man of lesser means would have been able to accomplish all this.

Time, Place, Chance, Matter

Richards Hollingsheads Home

Richards Hollingsheads Home

The humble beginnings of the drive begin with him at his home, projector on car, screen on tree, and movie playing while he thought.  This experiment must have been part of a larger plan because it was said that he tested viewing in simulated weather conditions and was pleased with the results.  A radio placed behind the screen to simulate soundtrack, one must assume since the old Kodak projector had no sound head, produced decent results at that short distance.  Most importantly, to simulate an audience of cars, various angles were tried for best viewing.

Immediately lawyer Leonard Kalish was hired to draft a description, and along with drawings from architect Howard E, Hall a patent applied for.

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My invention relates to a new and useful outdoor theatre and it relates more particularly to a novel construction in outdoor theatres whereby the transportation facilities to and from the theater are made to constitute an element of the seating facilities of the theater.  My invention relates more particularly to a novel construction in outdoor theaters wherein the performance, such as a motion picture or the like, may be seen and heard from a series of automobiles so arranged in relation to the stage or screen, that the successive cars behind each other will not obstruct the view.

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The patent was submitted on Aug 6, 1932.

Mr. Hollingshead was serious, and cautious.  A small scale model of just what one of these automobile theatres would like was already constructed.  But he did not stop there and must have had great faith in his idea, wanting to take it from a salable concept to physical reality himself.

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Apparently he had bounced the concept off associates and found a willing backer in Mr. John “Willie” Smith, car parking lot owner from Philly to New York , and relative of Richard Jr.  Discussion ensued over a lunch paid for in Camden Script, a local stand in for US currency in those depressionary times, and it was agreed that Mr Smith would invest a large portion of $25,000 it would take to create the new formed company of Park In Theatres. Later Oliver Willets of Campbell soup would invest in the group, leaving Richard Jr with a 30% share of the holdings.

Camden Drive-In-Theatre

It must have been also decided to keep the construction in a local familiar area. State lines nary stopped Camden in the exchange of people, ideas, and products, and a hop skip away lay the great population of Philadelphia.  A search for a location on the Philly side ensued up to the point of discovering a recently passed amendment that would allow late night amusements and Sundays back on the Camden side. The men had newly found a perfect location which was already well its way to becoming successful solely given to the freedom of the motor age.

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In the Township of Pennsauken NJ, just outside of Camden many developments were taking place.  Crescent Blvd was now connecting this pristine property with the bustling city of Philadelphia due to the construction of Ben Franklin Bridge.  Once in Pennsauken, various routes could be taken to Atlantic City, Pinehurst, and beyond.  This hub became what is still known as Airport Circle, the first and still remaining traffic circle in NJ.  Previewing the search that Park In Theatres had made, the city of Philadelphia was searching for a convenient location which would serve as an air transportation center for the area.  After a few false starts the location in Pennsauken was chosen.  The airport was a smash success with many celebrities touching base there.

Beacon At Central Airport

Beacon At Central Airport

Hangers at Central Airrport

Hangers at Central Airport

Capitalizing on this success entertainment which depended on the automobile sprouted up around the airport area, even the airport itself hosted events. People started parking outside the airport, day and night, to um watch airplane traffic. This led to many arrest, and as a reaction a private individual decided to pen up his property so lovers could swoon.  If there ever was a place ripe for a drive in, this would be it.

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Just east of airport circle (circled in yellow) a piece of land was chosen on the south side of Crescent Boulevard, which at that time flowed into Camden via Admiral Wilson Boulevard. The shapeless field was to be molded into what would become a pattern across the US by Mr. Edward Ellis.  A shrewd deal was made with Mr. Ellis; in exchange for the work performed shares in the newly formed company were given.  The rows, referred to as stallways, numbered 6 and increased in length and height as they fanned away from the screen location within a span of 500 ft. by 500 ft. There was a great amount of excavation needed as each stallway had a parking area graded at 5 degrees and filled higher than the previous, terracing the whole lot. Each stallway was spaced 50 ft apart, 16 foot devoted to parking and the remaining 34ft for driving to and from the spot.  In Hollingshead’s prototype, cars pulled forward to the edge of a short cliff, held back by a guardrail.  To leave one must reverse out back into the row.  Gravel, cinders and oil was used to create a hard surface and keep dust to minimum. Cinders although cost effective, proved over time to add to the dust and created more maintenance. Total car capacity would be 336.

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The building of the concrete retaining walls for these ramps and other structures on the lot would not go so smooth.  In April Mr. Hollingshead and Mr. Smith, who seem to be the in the grass owners of Park In Theatres, hired 25 out of work men from Pennsauken Township, paying skilled labor 40 cents an hour, and unskilled 20 cents.  Very soon Park In found itself the attention nearby Camden Labor Unions, since it they had hired nonunion workers at a rate far less than scale.  Hundreds of picketers started to block the site.  On April 29th Camden County Chamber of Commerce rep. Loyal Odhner hoped to broker a deal that would allow work to continue.  A short meeting between union reps, Smith and Hollingshead ended with Smith announcing that Park In would be willing to increase pay by 50%, but could not afford the 1.00 to 1.25 per hr. for skilled and .40 per hour for unskilled labor.

This went little way in resolving the labor problem, as for another week picketing continued with opening season within inches.

Park In discovered that in order to get the job done on time it was in their own best interest to go ahead and hire the union workers, thus creating yet another problem.

The men who had been working at the site for lower than scale were enraged and a big scuffle erupted in which the Ernest Lewis, President of the Camden Trades Council, was injured.  However no arrest were made, and things settled down on its own.  On May 16th 1933 the Patent was granted to Mr. Hollingshead and full on construction continued.

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The screen Tower was a massive beast of the times, reaching a height of 60 ft., 30 ft. deep, and a width including wings of 149 ft.  The structure was faced with asbestos sheets finished to resemble great blocks of granite.  In old black white photos, the effect looks complete.

The viewing screen area itself was 40 ft. high and 30 ft. wide, positioned above the ground by another 12 ft.

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A great sign on the back of the tower read, Drive In Theatre.  World’s First.  Sit In Your Car.  See and Hear Movies.  25cents per car, 25 cents per person.  3 or more person’s one dollar.  Near the road where you enter the driveway, two wooden pillars with the words “Drive In” stood.  Billboards on these pillars advertised coming attractions and the nights feature.

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Further up the drive or holding area for autos, men accepted the tolls for admission.  The projection booth was however much closer to the screen than our contemporaries due to the lighting technology of the times. It sat low in bomb shelter fashion, with not a snack bar in sight.  Since the maximum distance that the projector could throw the image was 150 ft., it was back from the screen 133 ft.

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The greatest difference and the most vastly improved upon today was the sound technology. Proudly trademarked by RCA as “directional sound” a distorted description of what amounted to 3 large 6 ft. square speakers and the only thing resembling direction was the way they were facing.  Later reports after opening has the sound traveling for miles, and was a bane to the industry for another 10 years until RCA introduced the now classic and nostalgic personal speaker.

Over 200 trees of 12 to 20 ft. were planted around the perimeter with an eye on future privacy.  For the time being a high fence was in place to help prevent people from sneaking in or parking on the edge of the lot.

Cost of the project range from 30,000 to 60,000 dollars.  One could assume that the actual price was on the lower end of this scale as later drive ins of the era report those lower figures.  But if you figure the price of land, construction, payouts, advertising and a host of other opening expense you could certainly see the price rising.  This first Drive In was sparing no expense in an effort for success.  The project never ran out of funding so it looks like a quality job was done in a decent time period, construction and promotion.

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Copy from the era show a plethora of ads taken in local newspapers, along with national press stories in periodicals such as Popular Mechanics; it looks like someone already had a sharp eye on a future expansion of the franchise.

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So with all this, what happened on opening night?   The cars that fully packed the Theater due to free passes, curiosity, and other promotion could have seen this as a relief from the stifling daytime temps if it hadn’t been for the voracious mosquitoes that swarmed open windows.  With the windows up the oppressive mugginess became unbearable.  The directional sound as loud as it may be still had a Doppler effect with the sound lagging the picture worse and worse the further you were from the screen, to the point of confusion.  Those parked at the edge of the fanned lot were considered to be in an area of distorted viewing and couldn’t see the screen all that well in the first place.  It seems likely it would have been a disappointment to many and I suspect feedback initially was.  Professional accounts however were upbeat and or least reported in a matter of fact manner without negativity.

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Attendance in the following nights dropped quickly and show schedules changed.  After a couple of evenings the three showings a night of the same film proved impractical and dropped to two.  Refreshments also soon became available and were instantly popular.

Unfortunately for Park In Theatres the era in which they existed had films controlled by a monopolized industry, and since the motion picture industry would not supply new product to this upstart they found themselves over paying for outdated films. .

Wife Beware, was an old movie with a new name, came at a cost $400 for a four day rental, while indoor theaters could rent it for 1/5th of that price for a whole week.

This problem could not have helped declining attendance either.  Yet something proved itself out over the following weeks and months, something that may have been predicted in hindsight or been brilliantly foreseen.

Theater workers noticed license plates from 43 states that first summer.  There developed a unique following latter described by Hollingshead as inveterate smokers, large groups, families, and those who wish to have refreshments without disturbing others.  The whole family can go and the children may be noisy and still safe.  The infirmed may watch a motion picture without hindrance. This and a host of other unique perks that a drive in offers kept a steady flow of customers coming as employees reported.

Hollingshead kept his eye on the bigger picture.  It was time to concentrate his efforts on expanding his franchise and protecting his patent.  After a couple of years he sold the theater to another  gentleman from NJ.  Within a year the theater was moved to just outside of Union NJ.

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Although the Camden location may have been closed in 1935, the 1,400 car location in Union survived from  1936 till 1983.

 

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As for Mr. Hollingshead, his shift to franchising and patent is another story and post.  As most know the sad ending is that he was not successful.  By 1949, a discouraged and anguished man lost his fight for the right of patent.  He once again found a successful career with Whiz Products which now had a thriving line within and outside the automotive field.

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Almost as an omen, a great fire at the Whiz Camden facility marked his return to the family business and Richard Jr.s vow never to be involved with the motion picture industry again.

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In our next post~

What the original location on Crescent looks like today.  Hint: there’s been a whole lot of changes.

Why I Love America

Throughout the world, many bring honor to their maker with beautiful grand edifices filled with devote followers of the faith.

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While these places of worship are truly amazing accomplishments, they can also be intimidating. In the US, well things can be different and this set of DIT-MCO Senior speakers have a story to tell.

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They’re a nifty little set from Driveinspecialties . They curiously have household plugs at the ends of the coiled cords and a “strange” ownership stamp on the casing.  Now speakers being passed out at the box office at some Drive Ins and t collected after a show I’ve heard of.  But the ID casted into the face…

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the Daytona Beach Drive In Church, hmmm just what era did this exist in? A mystery to solve and a short trip down the timeline to find the place where these speakers once plugged into.

 

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Out of goodwill Drive In’s once loaned their lot out on Sunday morning all over the US.

In my own great State we even had a small drive in, right up to the last decade, dedicated to preaching the gospel thru Christian movies and altar invites at intermission.  Notably the location of this was Devil’s Lake, a hop and skip over from the little town of Hell.

Devil's Lake Drive In

Devil’s Lake Drive In

It’s been told that Robert Schuller starting his very successful ministry preaching and holding special services with the convenience of a Drive In out in California.

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The Neptune Drive In of Daytona Beach Florida opened on 1950 and also loaned out its lot for services.  It had a car capacity of 500 and was a block up from the ocean.

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The Daytona Beach Drive In Christian Church started sharing the Gospel message in 1953 with its Sunday morning worship service. During this era it would have been competing nightly with screenings of films such as:

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But by 1964, the concept of an open air worship service had done so well that the Church in Daytona decided to outright purchase the theater and open the Wayside Altar.

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Today… a few clicks of the mouse leads to a Florida once known and loved.  It still exists, regardless of strip malls, condos, and Disney Inc.

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The screen is gone, but all the other elements are there and the Daytona Beach Drive In Christian Church is stronger than ever. And why not?

At the Daytona Beach Drive In Christian Church, it’s easy to understand why this type of ministry is so successful. Sunshine, clean air and open skies make for a downright beautiful morning.

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Some reasons for this achievement are shared with secular Drive In Theaters. It’s a communal experience, but with your choice of privacy afforded by your car. Kids as antsy as they want to be have lots of room for play and exercise. Your pets are also welcome to join.

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Pastor meets the congregation with a warm greeting.

Pastor meets the congregation with a warm greeting.

“I just have to remind myself that there are people behind those windshields, and they’re people just like people in any church – people who are celebrating, people who are hurting, and people who need a message of love and hope and grace for their lives,” Pastor Kemp-Baird says.

And everyone acknowledges this, the assembly tunes in on the radio dial, honking horns in return and taking part throughout of the service.

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A check of visitor reviews posted on Trip Advisor is extremely positive, ranging from “WOW” to the “service being fun and substantive”.

Because of its unique structure and location, the Daytona Beach Drive In Christian Church is also able to hold events other ministries can’t.

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During the Christmas season, a special drive thru nativity vignette comes alive with holiday decorations and lighting.

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Has all this been effective?  Is the saving news of Jesus Christ being preached and are people responding?  The answer is yes, and of course that is the ultimate good news.  If this winter you are vacationing in Florida near Daytona, how about plugging in and paying this congregation a visit.

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Links For the Daytona Beach Drive In Christian Church ~

www.driveinchurch.net/

www.youtube.com/watch?v=QtruNeNEDGk

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MFK9uTurGNQ

Say Hello To Our Little Friend

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The Irish Icon, DiTMCO!

DIT-MCO incorporated in 1948 as the Drive-In Theater Manufacturing Company providing products for the drive-in theater business. Shortened to DIT-MCO and used as the name of it’s new mascot in 1951, the line continued to grow year after year to become the Sears & Roebuck catalog of the industry.  Wisely in time the company diversified, and although the Drive In Theater division has recently closed , the company remains with a line of electronic test devices.

Funny thing is as  the company drifted away from Drive In equipment, this little guy holding a speaker and heater became unrecognizable to latter era employees.  A company newsletter inquired about the icon and went back to one of the old dogs, who in turn came up with a fanciful story of a long Irish name.

Today the icon lives on in memory only, and in the pages of old catalogs such as this:

http://www.ditmco.com/images/pdfs/catalog-1952.pdf

Starry Night at the Museum

 

Property Drive In Museum

Property Drive In Museum

Like the renewing night sky that envelopes it, the Drive In is ever changing.  Time and circumstance make sure that in structure, environment, and experience cinema under the stars will adapt.  One who has weathered its seasons and bridged these changes became a gate keeper along the way.   With understanding and pieces of the story Craig Binnebose created the Drive In Theater Museum, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the history of the Drive In, and also directs the modern theater called Moonlight Movies. This alliance of the old and the new uses proven methods, new ideas and the latest in technology, items which may be useful to future outdoor exhibitors.

Currently working with the Iowa Historical Museum he has contributed to an exhibit which tells the history of Iowa and  the film industry, its people, personality, and how it played back home again.

“Hollywood In the Heartland” is a multiyear project opening this June 27th and is sure to be a success in Des Moines.

Craig also stays busy as the director of the Iowa Independent Film Festival.  During the summer months this organizing brings free movies to the public square at Clear Lake IA.

I asked Craig if I could ask a few questions about his museum and experiences, and out of his busy summer schedule he has answered.

Beginning with a local ozoner, the Mason City Drive In, Craig set out to see what could be done when he heard of its scheduled closing.

Where or how did it all get started?

The Drive-In Theatre Museum got started in 1997 when I was given access to the Mason City Drive-In Theatre when it sold. I went and asked the new owners and they gave me the keys. All the equipment was scrap to them and I was able to save it just before it would have gown to the scrap yard.  I spent 4 months saving everything I could. Then I called CSTC the company who I had worked for in 1970 and got lucky, the one who was now running the company was a Drive-In Theatre manager. He liked someone caring enough to save the old things so he let me in as they sold the last of their Drive-In’s. I got into the Ranch Drive-In and then the Hillcrest about a year apart as they sold. I then tracked down the new owner of the Bel-Air Fly-In Drive-In, one of only 5 built that included an airport. I then found out about the 1st Watts hardtop theatre in Osage, IA when the projection booth from 1920 was found in the late 1990’s, last used in about 1951.

 

Did you ever have any inkling of the value that the collection would have or where you just trying to save history from destruction?

I have never thought of what I saved other than the historical valve to me. I just could not sit by and watch it disappear; I had to try to save it. I already saw Mason City tear down the Cecil / Park 70, Palace and the Strand Hardtop for a Mall that now keeps going bankrupt. These were theatre’s that I worked at and viewed so many movies for so many years.  Being able to watch a Christopher Lee Dracula movie with real bats flying around at the Cecil / Park 70 theatre was priceless. Later looking down at the Strand Theatre’s Carbon Arc which had fallen into the basement was hard to see as I had once run that equipment. I still have photos of those days. Earlier in the 1980’s, I tried to get in and save things but the city and the manager would not let me save anything.  The carbon arc lamp houses changed to xeon so the old ones had no monetary valve. Also stored at Strand but not allowed to be saved were The “Music Man” painted plywood panels, which I had looked at for years while working there.

So in 1997 when the new owners of the Mason City Drive-In let me in to save what I could I was very lucky, and that was the actual start of my collection.

 

How did collecting outside of the immediate area come about and the cost?

When I did get a chance to travel, I always looked for ozone and hardtop theatres. When I was collecting, I was still working 10 to 12 hour days so I could only look on weekends. The paper records I found at the Mason City Drive-In gave me names so I called then and they helped me get into other Iowa Drive-In’s as they closed. I never thought of the money it cost, I just wanted to save the theatre history.

 

 How did it come about when you thought others might be interested in seeing some of the collection, and how you would like to share it?

Nobody was able to see most of what I saved; it was always behind closed doors to the public. So I found a glass building at 604 N. Federal were I could put the equipment on display without the opening the doors. For many years people would contact me and tell me how much they liked seeing the projectors. I was surprised so many people liked seeing what I have saved.

Property Drive In Museum

Property Drive In Museum

Six years ago I lost that location and transferred to a 5 plex which had closed its doors, but still had many windows for display. This was at the same mall which had been built upon the torn down theater. There I was able to once again display the pieces of my collection. I had plans and was ready to open up the abandoned theatre in the mall once again to show older movies and keep the items on display. Every time I had ever walked into the mall, people were standing looking at the displays so the public enjoyed seeing Theatre history.

Property Drive In Museum

Property Drive In Museum

However the new mall management from the second bankruptcy notified me on December 17th that I had until December 31 to get out.

Today it still sits empty.

 

 It’s been a long journey, what would you like to share about your experiences.

I am wondering what will now happen to what I have saved now that I’m reaching a point where I can’t keep it. I had to scrap almost 1 ton of my lesser items. I did not want to do it but with my disability, I have to face the facts that I cannot save everything I collected. The Iowa State Historical Museum did take some of the best things for their collection but they do not have the space for so much that still needs to be saved. I will hold on to what remains as long as I can but it does not look good.

Property Drive In Museum

Property Drive In Museum

 

How did the exhibit at the State Historical Museum come about?

Word of mouth and my web page. Some years ago the State did a survey of Iowa theatres and contacted me.

 

What would you like to see your museum become in the future?

The internet and the 3 year display at the State Historical Museum in Des Moines “Hollywood in the Heartland” starting in late June are now what remains.  I still hope I can find a place that could save the remainder of my collection but it does not look like that will happen.

 

How about the future of the Drive In Theaters?

With just under 400 still in operation, old ones reopening and new one being built, it looks like they will still hang on at a much lower level then the 5,000 we had at one time in history. Increased land valves and Daylight Saving almost wiped out this American invention but it is still hanging on!

 

One last question.  Your website displays an ad by Ballantyne for a complete Drive In Theater kit, called the Rustic Theater.  In your travels, have you ever seen one of these kits constructed?

Property Drive In Museum

Property Drive In Museum

 Nope.

 

 

 

Folks, any of us gifted with the accursed and non-profitable call to preserve history knows it’s a very very hard journey.  In Craig’s own words you see the motivation, reason, and struggle to pass on the knowledge of the past.  When a rare person comes along and takes the chance to devote much of their life to that endeavor, it’s a shame not to assist them in ways that we can.  I ask that you visit his museum, write him, and see what can be done to make sure that this important part of our history is not lost.

 

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