Cinema Under the Stars

For the drive-in theaters left standing, projections are good

| July-August 2008

  • Drive-In Theater

    Image by Don Fulano, licensed under Creative Commons.

  • Drive-In Theater

There are two enduring, bipolar images of the drive-in movie theater in American memory. In the first, centered squarely in the suburbs of the 1950s, audiences would make a whole evening of a drive-in outing, showing up early so the kids could play on the jungle gym at the base of the screen while adults engaged in neighborly socializing. As stars grew visible, families would nosh concession stand hot dogs and hamburgers, then settle in for a double feature. The drive-in provided the perfect arena for celebrating the postwar amalgam of the traditional American pioneer spirit—the ethos of manifest destiny and wide-open spaces—with a more newfangled faith in progress and technology.

In the second enduring image, rooted in the ’70s and ’80s, the drive-in lay beyond the fringe of polite society, a seedy lot exhibiting pornography or cheap, bloody exploitation and “slasher” fare. Concessions were equally cheap and dirty, and these remaining theaters survived anemically, at best. Many diversified their interests by renting out space for weekend swap meets or running other ventures like gun shops and video clubs. But by night, lots were desolate, if not deserted, and some municipalities even brought injunctions against theaters whose R- and X-rated projections were visible from beyond their property.

At the end of the drive-in’s prime, around 1960, there were more than 4,000 outdoor screens nationwide. Through the ’70s, they held steady at about 3,600. That number halved by 1988, and halved again over the next 10 years. The exodus slowed in the ’90s, and the numbers have now reached a kind of equilibrium. There are about 650 drive-in screens today—which is about 650 more than many people would guess—and while a few are shuttered each year, an equal number are opened. In the right circumstances, the drive-in is once again a viable business.

William Beck was on the leading edge. In 1936 he began screening movies at Uncle Charlie’s restaurant in Berlinsville, Pennsylvania, a small town near industrial Allentown. Three years later, he began screening outdoors on rented land, and in 1946 he bought a parcel of land and started Becky’s Drive-In.

Beck, like so many other drive-in entrepreneurs, benefited from a perfect storm of conditions possible only in postwar America. Prosperity and the baby boom combined to draw families to the suburbs nearly as quickly as tracts could be subdivided, houses erected, and driveways for each family’s new car paved. Zoning laws that had designated land for single-family housing also designated commercial space at intersections, and industrial space on cheap land near highways, railroads, and rivers. Drive-ins provided communal entertainment for these sprouting commuter towns, and a nearly foolproof business model for the aspiring drive-in entrepreneur.

The programming was of little consequence. Operators could book movies with low rental fees, five months old or five years old, past hits or cheap B pictures. John Wayne, Bob Hope, and Disney films could play on the same screen as straight-to-the-drive-in sci-fi features like The She-Creature and Attack of the Giant Leeches. During this peak in the Eisenhower-Kennedy era, Becky’s showed second-run and B pictures and never lacked business, says Beck’s daughter, Cindy Deppe.

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