Senior Nostalgia: What Happened to Drive-In Movie Theaters?

What Happened to Drive-In Movie Theaters?

Remember those lazy summer days of your childhood and teenage years, when everyone loaded into the car and headed down to the drive-in? If you wanted something fun, unique, and maybe even magical, the drive-in movie theater was the place to be!

Sometimes they were called Outdoor Theaters or even “Ozoners.” The drive-in movie theater debuted in 1933 in Camden, New Jersey. An enterprising man named Richard Hollingshead patented the concept of creating a movie-going experience that would work well for anyone who didn’t want to sit inside a traditional movie theater or were uncomfortable in the small seats.

According to the New York Film Academy’s history of the drive-in, Hollingshead knew his audience: he advertised his drive-in as a space where “the whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are.”

And because he had much lower overhead costs than a typical theater, he could offer the movie at a cut-rate price that was quite attractive to the slim pocketbooks of those who were still coming out of the Great Depression.

And what an amazing sight it was! That original “Automobile Movie Theater” had a screen that was 40 feet tall by 50 feet wide. Speakers boomed from poles throughout the lot. The theater could accommodate up to 400 cars. The thrill of watching a movie on a big screen from the comfort of your vehicle was offered for the low cost of 25 cents per car and an additional 25 cents per person.

And while it was popular, remember that vehicles were still coming of age during the early 1930s. A trip to the drive-in became an experience that allowed you to enjoy the thrill of your new automobile as well as the pleasure of taking in a new picture.

Once the joys of the drive-in theater took hold, those big screens began to spread all over the country. Drive-Ins showed up mostly in rural areas because a large amount of land was required to handle all the cars. By the 1950s, there were over 4,000 drive-in theaters in the United States.

Those Fun Little Extras

One of the great joys of the drive-in movie theater was the concession stand. Often a low-slung building off to the side of the lot, concessions were just as important then as they are today. But while most movie theaters today serve popcorn, sodas, and candy, drive-in movie theaters served up burgers, pizza, and ice cream. The prices were a bit higher than what you might pay elsewhere but they were still reasonable – and it was a full-blown experience to remember. Many families were okay with dropping some extra dimes to get hot food straight off the grill or frozen treats right out of the cooler.

But the magic didn’t end there! Many drive-ins offered a playground for kids, something to keep them busy before the movie started. As dusk fell, it wasn’t unusual for families to sit outside of their cars on blankets or in lawn chairs, talking with people they knew and making new friends along the way. And when it was showtime, the speakers would start up and the countdown reel would display on the screen, silencing everyone as they stared up at the motion picture.

Some drive-ins soon began offering double-features. That meant that not only was the movie cheaper than you might get anywhere else, you actually got to see two of them! The double feature had a short intermission between the films, so you could get another soda in the glass bottle from the cooler or replenish the popcorn you had nibbled on throughout the first movie.

What Happened to the Drive-In?

By the 1970s, the novelty of the drive-in movie theater had largely worn off. People now wanted to go to large, air-conditioned multi-plex theaters with multiple screens showing a wide variety of movies at all hours, including the middle of the day. Without air conditioning, and lacking the ability to show several movies or offer daytime viewing hours, drive-ins had a hard time competing.

And besides the competition from the multi-plexes, a little thing called the VCR had come on the scene. Suddenly, you could watch movies in the comfort of your own home and pop that popcorn yourself. It was a more affordable option. And when cable television came along, movie theaters of all kinds took a big hit.

Other factors influenced the decline. Rising real estate costs made those large lots for cars more difficult to afford. If you owned one, it was an attractive proposition to sell the land. The cost of movies went up. In fact, sometimes the drive-in theater showed the biggest movies of the day at a loss. They simply didn’t make enough money to justify the screenings. As anyone can guess, that’s definitely not a sustainable business model.

As drive-ins declined, their numbers dropped from thousands to hundreds. Suddenly they were in the realm of nostalgia and over time they became something you might take a road trip to visit for a special event on a Saturday night.

Then COVID hit.

The Resurgence of Drive-In Movie Theaters

COVID forced almost everyone to live a new way of life. Traditional theaters, which made keeping a six-foot distance quite difficult, closed their doors during the pandemic. Drive-in theaters, however, were an option that was definitely COVID-friendly.

Simply slip your money through the slot in the door of the welcome booth, drive into your chosen spot, and turn on the radio (today, many drive-in theaters use FM radio transmitters to broadcast the sound of the film directly into your car instead of using speaker boxes). It was a great way to watch a recent film at a reasonable price while still safely isolating from others.

Today’s Drive-In Movie Theaters

Today there are about 300 drive-in movie theaters dotting the country. And during most warm summer nights, they’re full of cars. The concessions are hopping, the kids are in the playground, and the lawn chairs are out in force. In addition to the FM radio that allows the sound to pipe right through your car speakers, drive-in theaters now make use of digital projectors that create a sharper image on the screen. And many drive-ins still have much more affordable prices than anything you’ll find at the movie theater in the mall.

Many theaters try to create a “throwback” feel. Don’t be surprised to see vintage vehicles at the drive-in, old-school offerings like Coca-Cola in the bottle (ice cold, as it should be), and maybe even opening trailers that tout vintage brands that aren’t around anymore.

One of the fantastic parts of a drive-in theater is the fact that it’s in the great outdoors. Whether you’re playing with the grandchildren on the playground or making your way to the concession stand, it’s a good idea to be ready for anything. A personal emergency response system, also known as PERS, is an excellent way to ensure that if an accident occurs, you can reach out for help immediately. And with its built-in GPS, your location will be easy to find no matter where you are.

You might be surprised to learn that according to a study by New York University, almost half of all falls among seniors happen outdoors.1 And it’s important to note that it’s not just the elderly who experience so many falls when they are outdoors. That same study showed that, surprisingly, a whopping 72% of falls that occur among middle-aged adults happen outdoors! One of the wonderful points about medical alert technology is that while it can bring great peace of mind to the person wearing it, it can also be used to help protect those around you. If you see someone suffering a medical emergency or an accident at the drive-in (or anywhere), you have the power to use the button alarm to call for help for them, too. When you press the emergency button alarm to get help, the monitoring center can use the GPS to track you down and send help to your location right away.

So the next time you’re in the mood for something a little different, search for your closest drive-in movie theater. Gather the family or a group of friends and show them the thrill of what you enjoyed growing up. Hopefully the closest drive-in to you will have some of the original speaker poles, creating that unique crackling hum as the sound comes through. The scents wafting from the concession stand will make your mouth water. You’ll enjoy the sound of tiny gravel crunching underfoot as you make your way to pick up an ice-cold soda. Darkness will take its sweet time in falling, and you’ll all eagerly await the moment when the speakers come to life and the screen lights up with the first of an exciting double feature.

Though many things from yesteryear tend to be lost on today’s youth, it’s a sure bet that the magic of the drive-in will delight the kids – and hopefully will make enough of a mark that when they are older, they will be inclined to visit these theaters with their own kids and keep the tradition alive.