My mother, who grew up with the movies, remembered seeing her first silents projected on a bed sheet in a vacant lot in Toledo, Ohio. Oddly, the first drive-in involved a bed sheet: Richard Hollingshead, who invented this variation on movie-going, was said to have had an obese mother who wanted to go to the movies. Accordingly, he put a 1928 projector on the hood of his car, settled her in the front seat, and tied a sheet between two trees. Five years later, he opened the first drive-in in Camden, New Jersey, charging 25 cents a head to watch movies under the stars, with the slogan, “The whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are.” Shankweiler's Drive-In Theater, opened a year later in Orefields, Pennsylvania, followed by the Drive-In Short Reel Theater in Galveston, Texas, and the Pico at Pico and Westwood boulevards in Los Angeles.
With RCA’s invention of car speakers in 1941, the novelty of outdoor viewing became a commonplace (before that time, speakers on towers near the screen blasted cars in the front row). By the time I was in fourth grade (1958), there were better than 4000 open-air theaters in the U.S. That year, in the back seat of my best friend’s mother’s boyfriend’s Buick Elektra (what tail fins!), I waited until 1 A.M. to watch the “adult” films (The Long Hot Summer, Desire Under the Elms, Vertigo), while everybody else slept. Management programmed family fare for early in the evening, then showed the arty flicks after most people had either left or gone to sleep.
Time for a trivia question: What caused the decline, in the 1960’s, of drive-in movie theaters? Answer: shopping malls; land was just too valuable. Take the previously mentioned Pico, at the corner of Pico and Westwood Boulevards in Los Angeles. It survived as a drive-in until 1947, after which the Picwood, an indoor theater rose on that spot. Today at that same corner the Landmarks Theater in the Westside Pavilion, a shopping plaza, boasts twelve screens with a wine bar and reserved stadium seating. Indoor or outdoor, it’s been all about movies at that street corner for better than 80 years. In Staten Island, where I live, Fabian Theaters, the same chain that originally owned and operated our movie palace, the St. George Theatre, also owned NYC’s first drive-in on Staten Island, in 1948, which closed in the 1960’s, to make way for Staten Island’s first shopping mall.
Sometimes drive-ins just closed, their screens blank as tombstones until somebody bought the land. As of 2008 in Cincinnati, the Oakley Drive-In’s screen still stood, in a field of weeds. Dean and I had planned to visit that hallowed spot on the last day of 2015, the fiftieth anniversary of our first date. But, alas, the best we could do when that night came around was to wander the grounds of the newly-built Barrington of Oakley, a retirement community which stands on the spot.
If you, dear reader, get the wanderlust, bear in mind that, despite the Pandemic — which spurred the opening of a number of drive-ins — there are roughly 340 such theaters currently operating in the U.S.A. The advent of digital movie projection has cut the ranks of these mom-and-pop businesses, since it costs around $70,000.00 to convert to digital projection. One of the surviving locations, thankfully, appears to be the second such theater to open, the historic Shankweiler’s, in Oresfield, Pennsylvania, mentioned earlier in this piece. You’ll pay nine dollars per adult, six for every child under twelve. The Mahoning, which decided to ignore digital projection, is a prime example of a niche business, specializing in cult festivals and cutting-edge events. Check it out!
I remember when drive-ins charged by the carload, a dollar twenty. If only I’d known Dean when he and his buddies hung out at the Oakley’s rival, the Montgomery Drive-In. One of his friends had a dad who was a mortician. Just how many teenagers can you pack into a hearse?
1. An earlier version of this post appeared in 2015. Here’s a comment from Elizabeth Leslie:
You didn't mention the 1940 teenager's favorite entrance to a drive in — at least one person in the trunk. I never did it but I had friends who fought over the privilege of potential suffocation — all to save $2 bucks and be considered really tough!
2. Drive-ins were often thought of as “passion pits”; one Cincinnati DJ I knew of made up the following fake ad: Make it out to the Make-Out Drive In! No cover, no minimum — no movie! — might as well have been true.