Cinema Under the Stars

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Image by Don Fulano, licensed under Creative Commons.

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.

And yet, by the early ’70s, Beck had resorted to screening X-rated films. The Allentown area, once home to fourteen outdoor theaters, was on a steep slide down to its current three.

The drive-in’s swift descent, like its phenomenal success, was facilitated by values embracing technology and expansion. After television became widespread in the ’60s, second-run and B movies found a market in pay television and home video. Malls and shopping centers–with their multiplex cinemas boasting superior technical quality–established a new retail infrastructure and necessitated new development patterns.

In a sense, drive-ins were created by urban sprawl, then crushed by it. For owners, this was often more reward than punishment. As effective land speculators, they owned lots worth substantially more than the movies could rake in. The merits of selling became incontestable for most of them.

Since sprawl shows little sign of ceasing, the resurgence of the drive-in would seem unlikely. But given the right location–such as a modest, stable city like Allentown or a college town, or a small Southern city where movies can play year round–a drive-in can find a steady audience.

Theaters that survived the drive-in crash needed an image makeover, and many made the transition to first-run films in the early ’90s. Paradoxically, the growth of the multiplex helped them do this. As the number of indoor screens multiplied exponentially, so too did the number of first-run prints, some of which would move to drive-ins after just a couple of weeks. Soon, studios began making dedicated prints for drive-ins.

Drive-ins were thus primed to bring back their original image: an inexpensive, family-friendly venue. Today, Becky’s serves some local regulars with popular PG hits–superhero action flicks, the latest bawdy Will Ferrell comedy–but Deppe says it mostly draws crowds of tourists. Couples and families travel once or twice each summer from Philadelphia and New York to make a night of the drive-in, while some nostalgic boomers show up with their grandkids.

Relying on nostalgia is not the only marketing strategy, though, as 30-year-old Ryan Smith, a law student turned drive-in entrepreneur, admonishes. “Do you go to a baseball game because it’s nostalgic and because it’s America’s pastime? No. You go because you love the team or it’s exciting or it’s something to do with friends.” His Stars and Stripes Drive-In, a new three-screen that opened in 2003 outside Lubbock, Texas, is exemplary of a state showing strong drive-in growth. His theater–which screens double features to a total capacity of 1,000 cars–could never survive simply as a tourist niche. “I hope we’re in the very beginning of an upswing,” Smith adds, “because I certainly don’t want to be in a dying industry.”

While conditions may never again converge to bring drive-ins back to their glory days, owners like Smith are lending the business some new cachet and ensuring its survival through another generation. “I like the indoor theaters, but it took one time going to the Sky-Vue and I was hooked,” Smith says of his grand­father’s theater, which dates to 1948. “I thought to myself, ‘This is the way to watch a movie.’ I was watching Signs on a summer night. With the clear sky, I could see all the stars. It was like I was waiting on the aliens to invade. I thought, ‘Man, this is too cool.’ “

Adapted from an article in the Next American City(Summer 2007). Subscriptions: $29/yr. (4 issues) from 1315 Walnut St., Suite 902, Philadelphia, PA 19107;

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