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Drive Ins: Before the Boom

by Anders Runestad

Popcorn, of course. That’s obviously part of going to the movies, but in this case there was a cascade of concession items, from ice cream to sandwiches and more, along with endless possibilities for further distractions. Bands for dancing, comedians, contests and pageants, and the ubiquitous playgrounds for energetic youngsters. The drive-in theater was a more carnivalesque or circus-like way to see movies, with something to distract or entrance anyone of any age and a variety of amusements to please all the senses. There was so much going on that the senses could become displeased: flying insects might insert themselves into the action and weather could create its own lightshow, or simply an inconvenient rainstorm.

The drive-in was a long-lasting mass phenomenon for a couple of decades, and all the usual sociology class explanations about postwar America seem to fit: world war ended, increased affluence, rising birthrate, and mass car ownership. The curious combination of privacy while venturing out in public that the automobile allowed was a new luxury for the average person, and drive-ins were the perfect exploitation of that phenomenon. Be entertained, eat, socialize with family while leaving the house at the same time, get out of the car and experience a little taste of the outdoors, or stay within the metal cocoon—this combination of possibilities was new and must have felt unlimited. The drive-in thrived after World War II because it appealed to that new reality.

But it wasn’t always so.

There was of course the Great Depression in the years before the war and, perhaps strangely, the drive-in theater had its official start only a few years after the economic collapse that crushed the livelihoods of so many. There are some even earlier documented cases of trying out the drive-in idea, and no doubt a number of projectionists must have had the same thought. But as Kerry Segrave documents in his excellent and detailed study Drive-In Theaters: A History from Their Inception in 1933 (McFarland, 1992), the drive-in business officially started in 1933, when New Jersey entrepreneur Richard M. Hollingshead, Jr. received approval for his drive-in theater patent.

Not particularly interested in the theater business, Hollingshead’s intention was to largely stay out of it and profit from licensing his drive-in concept to those who wanted to build them. But by the time the patent had expired in 1950, he had earned little from it despite the increasing proliferation of ozoners (as the trade press liked to dub drive-ins). As Segrave shows, the first decade and more of drive-ins was an era of suits and countersuits, theater owners who built without licensing from Hollingshead, and court decisions on whether or not the drive-in could even be patented. The ozoner expansion would of course happen, but a very different U.S. had to come along first.

And on the way, drive-in owners would figure out something else. Segrave notes that it was difficult for drive-ins to get newer films from the larger studios, though it was apparent to most owners early on that the freshness or bigness of the movie shown was not that important. By the time of the postwar boom, when the car mostly got large numbers of people into drive-ins, it was well understood that those patrons were maybe not so fussy. Drive-ins, in other words, removed that pesky expectation of shutting up and paying attention, expected by at least some of the paying customers. And by removing the attention span requirement, they legitimized something that any regular moviegoer learns sooner or later. This is the uncomfortable truth that for many viewers, the movie does not matter.

Today’s attention span is famously short, with downturned heads affixed to phones that will not budge from hands, but it would be a mistake to see this as a downfall from a lofty height. For decades, TV has been the often powered on but unwatched background of many homes; go back a little further in time, and there’s no reason to assume that moviegoers cared about every show they were paying to see. Going to a theater is always a social event, and therefore only an excuse to leave the house for some; it then seems fair enough to assume that the drive-in took so long to take off because moviegoers had fewer automobiles, and yet …

Depression era movie attendance was famously high. And with more people in the seats, that implies a higher percentage of interested viewers in those crowds. The vocal rowdies would of course have been there too, but it’s unlikely that they explain mass movie patronage on their own. Somebody wanted to see Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, the current Western cowboy hero, cartoons, newsreels presenting reality in bite-size pieces, and the overall promise of escapism. It’s thereby possible that there was another factor at work limiting the growth of outdoor movies.

Despite the isolation of cars, going to a drive-in still meant time outside. That meant staying in the real world where conversation was the norm just outside the car window, bringing the possibility of more time spent with other unhappy people, time not spent escaping from everyone else with the exact same problems—too far away from the unreal fantasy world of the silver screen radiating over an unlit theater. A moviegoer in that theater might be physically closer to other people, but mentally the situation was inverted. In other words, the moviegoers of the Great Depression were more likely to want to shut up and pay attention.

While the drive-in boom is typically chalked up to affluence, convenience and the automobile, it may be more instructive to look beyond the lack of those things to see why drive-in theaters didn’t take off years before. Perhaps the early days of the drive-in sputtered simply because there was too much real world and not enough fantasy available there.

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Anders Runestad is the author of I Cannot, Yet I Must: The True Story of the Best Bad Monster Movie of All Time - Robot Monster, from Radiosonde Books.

Join The Film Detective all summer as we celebrate some of the great drive-in classics (and not so classics) of all time.


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