The Return of the Drive-In
By Nick Pinkerton
All the Modern Things
“I’m not sure George is wrong about automobiles. With all their speed forward, they may be a step backward in civilization. It may be that they won’t add to the beauty of the world, nor to the life of men’s souls. I am not sure. But automobiles have come, and almost all outward things are going to be different because of what they bring. They’re going to alter war, and they’re going to alter peace. I think men’s minds are going to be changed in subtle ways because of automobiles. And it may be that George is right. It may be that ten or twenty years from now, if we can see the inward change in men by that time, I shouldn’t be able to defend the gasoline engine, but would have to agree with him that automobiles ‘had no business to be invented.’” —Joseph Cotten as Eugene Morgan in The Magnificent Ambersons
By 1918, the publication year of Indianapolis native Booth Tarkington’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel describing the falling fortunes of a family of Midwestern aristocrats and the rise of the arriviste inventor and industrialist Eugene Morgan, the possible changes that Morgan foresaw had already come to pass. The Great War had been fought and finished behind horsepower rather than horses, and the pokey, rather small town-ish city on the White River in which Tarkington had been raised, and where he set his epoch-spanning book, had expanded exponentially into a messy, modern industrial hub—less than 50,000 souls when he was born in 1869, over 300,000 by 1920. Indianapolis was by that point well on its way to becoming a power in automobile manufacture, an aspirant to the Motor City crown finally claimed by Detroit, turning out Stutz Bearcats, Marmons, and, eventually, luxury Duesenbergs. The Duesenberg was advertised as synonymous with glamor and, as such, a must-have accessory for luxe Hollywood life. Gary Cooper had one; Clark Gable, too. The new cities of the west, like Los Angeles, wouldn’t have to be bent and broken and macadamized to accommodate the car—they were made for the automobile, a new kind of sprawling cityscape of vast distances and sweeping expressways.
It was out west that one first began to see indications of how car culture would also change the way in which people went to the movies—a still young habit in Tarkington’s time, the invention a rough contemporary of the automobile. In Las Cruces, New Mexico, in 1915, a local impresario opened the Theatre de Guadalupe, which included “automobile entrances” and “places for 40 or more cars”—it began with a short titled Bags of Gold, but this was not an augury of success ahead, and the cinema closed by summer of the following year. Sporadic experiments would continue with the basic concept of a cinema designed for the motorcar, but it wasn’t until the outset of the 1930s that the drive-in came into its own, in a matter of years transforming empty acreage across the country into open-air attractions that were part-movie theater, part-pleasure garden, and which encouraged a new, unbuckled informality in cinema-going.
The drive-in would become, in the postwar period, a national phenomenon, a symbol of untethered, ever-expanding, pedal-to-the-medal America, both a communal living room for Baby Boom parents and a prowling ground for a generation of teenagers with driver’s licenses and disposable income, the “superkids” whose gasoline-scented ecstasies Tom Wolfe described in his 1968 The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test: “The feeling—out here at night, free, with the motor running and the adrenaline flowing, cruising in the neon glories of the new American night—it was very Heaven to be the first wave of the most extraordinary kids in the history of the world—only 15, 16, 17… with all this straight V-6 and V-8 power underneath and all this neon glamour overhead, which somehow tied in with the technological superheroics of the jet, TV, atomic subs, ultrasonics—Postwar America suburbs—glorious world! and to hell with the intellectual bad-mouthers of America’s tail fin civilization… they couldn’t know what it was like or else they had cultivated out of them—the feeling—to be very Superkids! the world’s first generation of little devils—feeling immune, beyond calamity.”
There is a famous photograph by O. Winston Link, titled Hotshot Eastbound, that is something like a prototypical image of the era that Wolfe describes. In the foreground of the picture, taken at a drive-in theater in Iaeger, West Virginia, in the summer of 1957, a young couple—23-year-old Willie Allen and Dot Christian, of nearby Bradshaw—canoodle in the front seat of a Buick convertible with the top down. Ahead of them are further rows of cars, dozens of them, facing a screen on which can be seen an airplane in flight—a scene from the 1955 aviation adventure film Battle Taxi, starring Sterling Hayden. Just beyond the screen, on a ridge that stands above the hoods of the cars, a train passes, a Y6 steam locomotive carrying coal. Link, who lucidly lit the scene with 42 flash bulbs, shot the picture as part of a project that occupied him through the latter part of the 1950s, the documentation of the final days of the steam-propelled Norfolk & Western Railway, the last Class I railroad in the country to use steam locomotives. The symbolic implications of the image are clear: the cars face west, towards young frontier country, towards a movie image suggestive of the clean, nuclear-powered Jet Age future-present; the steam train moves east, hauling coal, the dingy, dirty power source of the Industrial Revolution. Along with the chromium luster of the automobiles, the very setting of the photo gives off a glisten of cool, unblemished modernity. The drive-in theater: the way of the future!
Or so it then must have seemed. We are residents of that day’s future, however, and one year ago, you would have been hard-pressed to find a great many people seriously proposing that the drive-in movie theater was anything more than a throwback novelty, a vestige of a bygone time. The 1950s reached a recorded high count of over 4,600 drive-ins operating in the United States, but then a long, slow decline set in, with many theater owners in the ’80s selling out their lots to land developers, and the total count of drive-ins dipping into the hundreds. (During the same period the single-screen neighborhood cinemas were confronted with the new multiplexes, many of them shuttered or segmented in response—variety was the word of the day, and cinemas had to provide a diverse bill-of-fare or face extinction.) But with the COVID-19 pandemic, and various resulting edicts that have kept cinema doors locked to the public, the drive-in, for a summer, became the only game in town. Already existing drive-ins provided studios with a goodly portion of the thin trickle of revenue they’ve seen through this public health catastrophe, and new drive-ins have appeared where once there were none. Cramped New York City remained nearly impervious to the drive-in craze in its heyday—there was the Whitestone Drive-In on Bruckner Boulevard in the Bronx, with room for 850 cars, at the location of the later, since-shuttered Whitestone Multiplex Cinemas—but now boasts a bumper crop. During this dullest of dystopias, we’ve seen the unexpected return of the sort of cinemas that once made a mint showcasing end-of-man scenarios with far more flair, the nuclear monster and big bug movies of the Eisenhower era. Thinking of the strange tenacity of the drive-in, the title of a 1958 sci-fi cheapie that once made the rounds in these unusual outdoor cinemas springs to mind: The Thing That Couldn’t Die.
The improvised nature of many of these new drive-ins recalls the humble origins of the idea. Richard Hollingshead, Jr., the man who first envisaged the modern drive-in, was born into a New Jersey automobile family, and grew to manhood in the general sales manager position at his father’s company, Whiz Auto Products. Dreaming of crawling out from under father’s shadow and striking out on his own in the midst of the Depression, Hollingshead brainstormed ideas for a new business model that would revolve around “Depression-proof” essentials—those amenities that, even in straitened circumstances, Americans could not do without. One such essential that Hollingshead struck on was the car. Another was an evening at the movies. And what if, Hollingshead reasoned, a night at the movies could be freed of the annoyances and expenses that warded off some families by being spent in one’s own car? The difficulty of finding downtown parking would be a non-issue, as would that of finding a sitter for the children, who could come along without fear of their being a nuisance to neighbors. And so, on May 16, 1933, Hollingshead was issued patent number 1,909,537, for “a new and useful outdoor theater… whereby the transportation facilities to and from the theater are made to constitute an element of the seating facilities.”
Tests were first conducted in the driveway of the Hollingshead home at 212 Thomas Ave. in Riverton, New Jersey, where Hollingshead mounted a 1928 Kodak projector onto his car’s hood, and projected films onto a white bed-sheet suspended between two trees, turning his lawn sprinklers on and off to simulate adverse climatological conditions. Satisfied with his results, he next addressed the problems of sightlines and sound. The first issue was solved through a series of ramps radiating in a semicircle from the 30’ x 60’ screen he’d had built on his 250,000 square-foot site on the present-day Admiral Wilson Boulevard in Camden, New Jersey; the second, through a meeting of minds with RCA Victor, who had offices in the same city, and who offered Hollingshead what they called “Controlled Directional Sound”: a three-speaker system that was to carry sound evenly to every car in the lot, regardless of its distance or proximity to the screen. On June 6, 1933, Hollingshead’s new model of a cinema opened for business under the auspices of Park-In Theaters Inc., charging 25 cents to each car that stopped at a ticket booth overseeing entrance to the lot and admission to the show, a three-year-old Adolphe Menjou vehicle, Wife Beware.
That first night was a full-house success, but the problem of lack of timely access to the most desirable of first-run studio films would continue to plague Hollingshead—the studios reserved this fresh, premium product for their own cinema chains, offering hand-me-downs to the independents. Also causing Hollingshead headaches were complaints about RCA Victor’s sound system, which sometimes could be heard for miles around, but sometimes was inaudible to the cars in the back row. After two years, Hollingshead had had his fill of the hassles of day-to-day cinema operation; he sold the property, and the equipment and screen were moved to a new location in Union, New Jersey.
The following years Hollingshead spent largely in litigation, suing the owners of the copycat “park-ins” that were suddenly cropping up across the country for patent infringement. Shankweiler’s Auto Park, the first in Pennsylvania, opened off Route 309 in Orefield in 1934, and continues to operate today, its streak of longevity unmatched. The Weymouth Drive-In on Bridge St. in Weymouth, Massachusetts, brought the phenomenon to New England in 1936, having actually obtained a license from Park-In Theaters Inc. first; their posters would advertise “Elderly, invalids, fat people and tall people may enjoy the show in comfort and privacy without leaving their cars.” On September 9, 1934, Will Rogers in Handy Andy would light up the screen at the Pico-Westwood Drive-In in Los Angeles, the first such facility in California, followed by many more, like the San Val Drive-In, which opened in 1938 in Burbank, and which innovated a new solution for the sound issue, hooking up speakers to rows of individual cars. That same year New York State joined the crowd with the 500-car capacity Valley Stream Drive-In, built by Michael Redstone, the father of future National Amusements owner Sumner. Trade papers covered the phenomenon with bemusement first, then with genuine interest, and even gave the drive-ins a pet name: “ozoners.”
Hollingshead never reaped the fortune in royalties he felt himself owed as father of the ozoner, pursuing his various lawsuits as far as a Supreme Court ruling that fatally ended his dreams of monopoly, and sent him, snake-bitten, limping away from the movie business for good. His “park-in” model, however, continued to expand across the United States, notwithstanding the challenges posed by first the lingering Depression, then the Second World War, and at all times the hostility of the “Big Five” studios—Fox, MGM, Paramount, RKO, and Warner Brothers—who viewed the drive-ins as snot-nosed suburban upstarts, unwelcome competition for their showpiece downtown movie palaces. The first in-car speakers, allowing customers to control sound levels, were developed by RCA in 1941, but wouldn’t be implemented until 1946, thanks to the more pressing manufacturing concerns of wartime. Spotty drive-in film programs might be mixed in with other attractions: in September 1949, Akron’s Starlight, Ohio’s first drive-in, advertised a “Big Hillbilly Jamboree,” featuring Tex Hobgood and His Sage Brush Drifters and “The World’s Only Cowboy Magician.” For product, the drive-ins often relied on smaller studios—Universal, Eagle-Lion, and other operations still further out on the fringes—or else settled for shopworn second-run features from the majors. “The South’s Most Beautiful Drive-In Theater,” the Starlight in Atlanta, opened with The Inside Story (1948), an Allan Dwan comedy for Republic. When the Silver Lake Drive-In opened under the Lincoln Avenue viaduct in Pittsburgh the following year, it launched with the Paramount John Farrow Western California, then two years old.
None of this managed to slow the spread of the drive-in, and by the time of the Silver Lake’s opening in 1949 more than a thousand open-air theaters were now in business in the United States, their proliferation abetted by a postwar building boom and a skyrocketing birth-rate that called for the drive-ins to do their duty as a cheap night out for the whole rambunctious family. Many of these new drive-ins were increasingly costly, spectacular affairs: The Harbor Drive-In in National City, California, opened in 1949, cost a whopping $250,000, more than four times the cost of Hollingshead’s Camden operation. Screens grew vaster, and lots grew with them: the Century’s 110-Drive-In in Melville, New York, opened in 1956, accommodating 2,500 cars, a tally to be equaled by another Long Island cinema the following year, the Johnny All-Weather Drive-In in Copiague, so-named because it also had an indoor theater for inclement weather. (Others in cold weather climes would offer car heaters, to run a year-round trade.) Increasingly elaborate inducements were added to lure in customers, including concession stands, swimming pools, shuffleboard courts, barbecue pits, petting zoos, miniature golf courses, and playgrounds for the kiddies: the Century’s 110advertised a miniature railroad, carnival carousel, and chair ride. There was also spectacular signage on the back of their ever-more-massive screens, which became enormous beacons to passing motorists: the Campus Drive-In in San Diego, for example, was emblazoned with the figure of a 46-foot-tall drum majorette outlined in neon, twirling her neon baton.
So the drive-in marched on, to a fanfare of ringing cash registers. The 1950s and early ’60s are retrospectively viewed as the heyday of the American drive-in, and in terms of box-office receipts and ambition of scale, at least, this is hard to deny. But though a reeling blow had been dealt to the vertically integrated Big Five oligopoly by the 1948 ruling in United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc., which decreed that they had to divest themselves of their theater chains, this didn’t result in a change of the accustomed view of the drive-in as a second-tier kind of venue, or a reversal of the received wisdom that the drive-in was a place where the movie was very often an incidental attraction. While some of the biggest drive-ins could negotiate for first-runs—in 1957 there was even a Paramount premiere, for director-star Cornel Wilde’s racing picture The Devil’s Hairpin, at the Victory Drive-In in North Hollywood—most of the rest were still left to wait on whatever table scraps fell their way. From the early days, however, drive-in owners had also forged alliances with smaller independent distributors, many of them offering product the major studios wouldn’t deign to deal in. Though drive-ins pitched themselves as family-friendly venues, some lived a double life, ending their seasons screening the “exploitation” efforts of independent producers and directors—Dwain Esper in the 1930s, Dan Sonney in the ’50s—who’d rushed into the void when in 1934 the Production Code Administration began its campaign to banish mention of sex from the American screen. In fall of 1951, a minor fracas arose surrounding Detroit area drive-ins—the Fort, Grand River, and Gratiot—showing well-worn risqué fare like 1937’s How to Take a Bath, featuring actress Elaine Barrie in dishabille, and through the years Archdioceses and local police would continue to regard the ozoners with wary eyes.
These kinds of programs had been reliable moneymakers in small independent cinemas across the country for decades, but the censorious imagination swooned at visualizing what could happen when the presence of such scandalous subject material on-screen was combined with the shadowy semi-privacy of a parked car. So never mind the fact that more drive-ins hosted Sunday services than played smut, or that drive-ins offered bottle warming and diaper services for young mothers—the scuttlebutt got around that they were really a dark haven for horned-up teens looking somewhere to get a handful of cashmere sweater, and so the legend of the drive-in as “passion pit” was born, to be perpetuated by Danny Zuko manhandling Sandy in Grease (1978) to a backdrop of prancing refreshments.
The superkids would start coming to the drive-ins in droves through the latter part of the 1950s and through the ’60s, and no one catered to them so cannily as did James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff’s American International Pictures (AIP), the most famous of the low-budget operations to aim product specifically at the drive-in teen market, making a mint with Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon’s brainless beach party pictures, Bert I. Gordon’s monster movies, and the Edgar Allan Poe adaptations of star director Roger Corman, whose The Wild Angels (1966) was the youthquake hit that launched an entire biker movie cycle. In addition to their own product, AIP provided American distribution for an assortment of the creature features being produced by Toho studios, meaning that they were instrumental in bringing dubbed versions of Ishirō Honda’s Frankenstein Conquers the World (1967) and Haruyasu Noguchi’s Gappa the Triphibian Monster (1967), and thus the genius of Japanese culture, to audiences in rural Arkansas and Oregon. (I might mention that the drive-in was not an entirely American phenomenon, with drive-ins opening in Rome and Melbourne by 1954, but these international ozoners lay beyond the scope of this piece.)
The outsized, gaudy, gimmicky drive-ins of the 1950s tend to exert a fascination on people with an attraction to the appurtenances of postwar American prosperity, being of a piece with blazing neon roadside signage, lapidary Wurlitzer jukeboxes, and massive, Space Age sedans. While all of this is not without its charm, I find a greater allure in the drive-in in its “decline,” for moving into the 1960s the drive-ins, alongside the mom-and-pop grindhouses of America’s urban centers, provided an exhibition circuit and revenue stream for American independents cranking out disreputable folk art in the interest of turning a quick buck. (And, sure, incidentally practicing a bit of self-expression in the process.) Through the efforts of AIP and others, the “drive-in movie” came to denote not only a manner of film exhibition but a type of movie made for those venues, the self-awareness of drive-in filmmaking reaching an apotheosis with Peter Bogdanovich’s Corman-produced Targets (1968), which set loose a Charles Whitman-like sniper sharpshooting patrons at an AIP premiere at the 740-car Reseda Drive-In.
Beyond the vaunted AIP there were a whole host of hucksters, hustlers, and sleazoid poets keeping the drive-ins supplied with works of prurience, savagery, and salacity. There was George A. Romero, whose Night of the Living Dead (1968) did a good bit of its take at ozoners, and which could be seen at the All-Weather on a bill with Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965). There was Al Adamson, whose biker craze cash-in Satan’s Sadists (1969) was but one of a host of titles distributed through his own Independent-International Pictures. There was Ted V. Mikels, low-rent auteur of The Corpse Grinders (1971), whose gimcrack showmanship included bringing bevies of nurses to screenings to take blood pressure checks and forestall the possibility of moviegoers being frightened to death. There were the gory gratuities of Herschell Gordon Lewis and his carnie barker-cum-producer David Friedman, who claimed to have handed out half a million barf bags at screenings of Blood Feast (1963). There was H. B. Halicki, whose independently made and distributed Gone in 60 Seconds was one of the runaway hits of 1974, a masterpiece of automotive mayhem for the muscle car crowd. There were the UK horror imports from Hammer, Amicus, and Tigon; smut from Scandinavia and action from Italy and Bruce Lee knock-offs from Hong Kong; Planet of the Apes and sequels in an eight-hour 1973 “Ape-o-Rama” at the Lincoln Drive-In outside York, Pennsylvania; Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive (1974) at the Skydrome in Lake Worth, Florida; Sonny Chiba in The Executioner (1974) at the Silver Dollar Drive-In in Phoenix, Arizona, where the first 100 customers would receive a “free karate lesson coupon.”
This was the decadent phase of the drive-in. It was an era undeterred by persistent attempts to tame the ozoners through legally dubious crackdowns, which were mostly predicated on the semi-public nature of the drive-in, and the supposed impossibility of fully protecting a vulnerable public from lewd imagery on an open-air screen. Copies of Danish taboo-buster I, a Woman (1965) were seized from two Indianapolis, Indiana-area drive-ins in 1967. A coordinated raid in Alabama in July 1969 netted prints of Joseph G. Prieto’s The Shanty Tramp (1967), Joseph Sarno’s Inga (1968), Peter Perry, Jr.’s The Secret Sex Lives of Romeo and Juliet (1969), and other titillations that undoubtedly made for a hot night in the station house. Police in Richland, Washington, put the manager of the Park Y drive-in in handcuffs for showing Radley Metzger’s Carmen, Baby (1967), the state finally arguing before the Supreme Court that the drive-in “illuminates the nighttime sky of a residential area with a vivid portrayal of erotic sexual scenes.” (They lost the case.)
These busts ultimately failed to stem the tide of busts at the drive-in—their proceeds helped to keep gazonga-mad auteur Russ Meyer busy at work, allowed Sarno to raise five children, and afforded Mikels that ability to purchase Sparr Castle in Glendale, California, which he outfitted with secret passageways and an entourage of live-in lady companions. Tickets were sold, Thunderbird flowed like wine, and the odor of ditch weed filled the air. Vans rocked, and no one knocked.
The audiences, brought in by inexpensive admissions, were often working-class, both urban and rural, and they made their own hits and elevated their own stars. I was moved by an item I stumbled across in the Dayton Daily News describing the traffic jams caused by the bonanza drive-in success of Smokey and the Bandit (1977), which included the following passage: “Jeff McDonald, 18, of 209 Farmersville Rd., along with his wife, Rhonda, 17, and month-old baby came all the way from Germantown to wait in the driveway. He said he’d been in a four-mile traffic jam and now he was waiting at least another hour for the chance of getting in. ‘I’m here because of that man right there—Burt Reynolds,’ he said.” What is touching about this is the way it speaks to the real rapport that existed between an actor like Reynolds and his public, a public that has largely been abandoned to the direct-to-video market, if addressed at all. I don’t know if Hollywood misses the Jeff and Rhonda McDonalds, but I believe that the American cinema was the better for having considered them a little bit.
But in time Reynolds’s star faded, and gore, car crashes, and sex—on screen or possibly in the lot—were not enough to keep thousands of drive-ins afloat. In Rod Amateau’s ensemble comedy Drive-In (1976), the action is set entirely in a Texas ozoner called The Alamo, and the naming of the theater is apt: by the middle of the ’70s, there was a sense that the drive-in was making its final stand.