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Video & Urban Sprawl Killed the Drive-In Theater
by Christopher Stone

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The ads for George Lucas' 1973 classic, AMERICAN GRAFFITI, pose the retro question: "Where were you in 1962?" For much of Young America, the answer to that nostalgic query is "at the drive-in movie."

For two decades (1950s and 60s), the drive-in movie theater was America's favorite movie date. More than just a place for cinema under the stars, the drive-in theater was a parking lot paradise where hormone-hopping teenagers could escape the restraints and scrutiny of parents, teachers, clergy, and other authority figures. At the drive-in, pent up passions were released, along with the latest B-grade epics from American International Pictures, or Britain's Hammer Films. The drive-ins were as American as Mom, apple pie, or the McGuire Sisters. And everyone wanted to attend.

As one Boomer grandma recalls: "It was a place that you could take the family for dinner and a movie that wouldn't break the bank."

Even if you've never been to a drive-in theater, chances are that someone in your family has fond memories of them. Many a graying Boomer was conceived in an ozoner with a name such as Stardust, Moonglo, Sunset, Twilite, and the like.

Patented in 1933, the drive-in Theater concept was the brainchild of a young Camden, New Jersey Auto Parts sales manager, Richard Hollingshead, who sought to combine his two passions: cars and movies. Less than a month after receiving his patent, Hollingshead opened the world's first Drive-In Theater, in Camden, New Jersey. The admission price was 25-cents for the car, and 25-cents for each passenger.

One year later, California had its first drive-in theater, the Pico Drive-In, at the corners of Pico & Westwood in Los Angeles. Today the corners are the site of a massive shopping mall.

After World War II, the drive-in reemerged as a teenagers' paradise: a place to eat junk food, show off new clothes and beaus -- a place to be alone and unsupervised with your high school heartthrob. It was then that the drive-in theaters, previously dubbed ozoners, became known as Passion Pits.

By 1948, the number of drive-in theaters had grown to just under 1,000. Ten years later, in the U.S., there were 5,000 Passion Pits, and drive-in movie business accounted for about 40% of the U.S. box office total. During the same ten-year-period, 1948-58, largely due to television, 5,000 indoor theaters closed their doors permanently.

During the 1950s' Golden Age of the drive-in theater, America couldn't get enough of them. Dusk till Dawn, All-Night Marathons, $1 per Carload Nights, and Ladies' Nights, were popular events at the neighborhood drive-in. Teenagers flocked to movies with titles such as DAMAGED GOODS, I PASSED FOR WHITE, and THE BLOB. Across the drive-in lot, on the theater's second screen, their parents watched Lana Turner in IMITATION OF LIFE, or Burt Lancaster's Oscar-winning performance as ELMER GANTRY. It was not unusual for thrifty drivers to hide passengers in the car trunk in order to save money.

Many parents found the drive-in as appealing as did their teenagers. The drive-in permitted parents to enjoy a double feature while the pajama-clad little ones slept safely in the back seat. Child admission prices were far less than the cost of a baby-sitter. Most drive-ins featured playgrounds on which the kiddies could frolic before show and slumber times. Some drive-in playgrounds were elaborate, including free pony rides and even miniature golf courses.

At the drive-in Concession Stand, in addition to popcorn, hot dogs, and sugary treats, you could commonly find corn dogs, hamburgers, pizza, tacos, and more. A few drive-in entrepreneurs installed lunchtime cafeterias and public swimming pools as a way of making money during the day.

If the libidinous teenager in the next car had already passed third base with his girl, and was going for a homer, then his windows were probably too fogged for your kids to see anything. Or, if you were lucky, the wee ones were already snoozing in the back seat by the time horny Henry had rounded third base.

You can see a mostly typical re-creation of date night at the drive-in, in the motion picture GREASE. The bloody PSYCHO BEACH PARTY re-creation of the drive-in date is grotesquely funny, but atypical, unless you were attending the Passion Pit with Alfred Hitchcock or Stephen King.

By the 1970s, the Glory Days of drive-in theaters had ended. Hundreds of outdoor venues folded as home video swept the country.

Urban sprawl also drove a stake into the heart of the ozoners.

Many of the theaters were on the only land parcels big enough for a shopping mall. As former drive-in owner Martin Shafer put it, "It's hard to turn down an offer from a land developer that equals ten years of profits on the drive-in."

I eye-witnessed this phenomenon. What had been the Starlite Drive-In Theater of my childhood, gave way to the behemoth Fashion Fair Mall. Six years ago, when I moved into my coastal Los Angeles home, a multiple screen drive-in theater was still operating several miles away. Today, it's a housing development.

As the 1970s advanced, the drive-ins faced other challenges, too. Decidedly low fidelity sound, pumped into cars by individual
window-attached speakers, was unsatisfactory when the audience was listening to THX at the multiplex. The drive-ins that have survived into this century most commonly pump sound directly into cars via FM stereo radio.

Climate and daylight savings time had always limited the hours of successful operation for outdoor theaters. By the late 1970s, this limitation became one more deal breaker on the ever-increasing laundry list of drive-in theater woes.

It didn't help that sexual/social mores loosened dramatically and rapidly following San Francisco's 1967 Summer of Love. Suddenly, and for the first time, the drive-in theater wasn't the only game in town for horny, hormone-crazed youth. There were other venues for releasing pent up desire: happenings, love-ins, drugged out rock concerts, and co-ed dorms, to name just a few.

Since 1990, in the U.S., 22 new drive-in theaters have been built and 37 closed drive-ins have reopened. Drive-in fans like to point to these statistics as proof that the ozoner is enjoying a renaissance. According to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association, as of November 2004, there were 405 drive-in movie theaters in the United States, operating a total of 644 screens. This doesn't herald the coming of a new Golden Age of drive-in theaters.

More accurately, the new venues, and the re-opening of old screens, mean that there are now enough outdoor theaters to satisfy younger generations that seek a retro experience for themselves and their children.

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Does advertising, public taste, or overindulged stars determine a movie's box office fate? Christoper Stone explores what's going on behind the box office.

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Other columns by Christopher Stone:

The Cautionary Box-Office

Box-Office Holiday Season Heads Up. Part Two

Box-Office Holiday Season Heads Up, Part 1

Quality Is Independent

Oh, the Horror!

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Christopher Stone
Christopher Stone is the author of the international best seller Re-Creating Your Self. With Mary Sheldon, he co-authored three highly successful hardcover books of guided meditations.

He is a member of the Writers Guild of America, West.

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Christopher Stone by clicking here.

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