Drive-In Theaters Taking A Hit


By John Harvey

There was an article in my local paper recently about how drive-in movie theaters are taking another hit to their existence.

This time, it is the need to convert from 35mm film reels to digital systems that require an investment of something in the neighborhood of $70,000 per screen for the new equipment, plus upgrading the projection booth to computer room- grade environmental standards, because digital stuff generally doesn’t handle heat well.

The article said that the number of theaters had dropped from more than 4,000 in the late 1950s to 357 in 2013. Another article I found listed the states with the most operating outdoor theaters – Pennsylvania has 30; Ohio and New York each have 29; Indiana has 20; California has 18; Tennessee and Texas each have 15. Six states have none – Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii, Louisiana, North Dakota, and Wyoming.

I recall many pleasurable evenings at the “passion pits” in the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and likely into the ’80s, because I recall going to some after moving to Illinois in 1979. It isn’t quite the same going with your wife instead of a date – you actually watch the movie, but still, you have the comfort of your own car, you can bring you own refreshments, you can make comments without disturbing anyone else, your feet don’t stick to the floor and, well, you know!

I can remember going as a child, where my parents parked near the front of the lot, so it was easy to get to the playground down front of the screen. Maybe I was too young to remember going in pajamas, but I know that I did fall asleep sometimes. In those rows in front of the refreshment stand, people with station wagons backed into the space and had lawn chairs with them. The kids probably ended up crashing in the back of the car, while the parents sat outside.

When I started dating, we parked behind the refreshment stand, where it was darker. People didn’t bring their rugrats to those rows – that was strictly for “adults.” Even if you went with the guys (or gals), instead of having a date, you parked back there. It wasn’t at all uncommon to make a new friend in another car, and end up with two coed cars, instead of two cars of each.

If you went with the guys, you absolutely did not want to leave the car, unless everyone else left too and stayed together. Taking the keys didn’t have the same effect it does when you drive cars from 1968 or newer – my 1947 Ford had a locking steering column, but few cars were immobile just because the keys were gone.

It was not unusual to see cars being pushed around by a group of guys. That is why you didn’t want to leave the car alone – the rest of your crew would move the car.

I lived in Detroit where it got hot in summer, but not like it does further south. Maybe being young and not knowing any better had a lot to do with it, but I don’t recall the sweat and the bugs being much of a hindrance to our activities of clutch bod and kissy face.

Sometimes you’d put the offered heater inside your car, along with the speaker that was also on the post. If you steamed up the windows real bad, there were guys with big flashlights who would bang on the glass and yell, “What ’chou doin’ in there, boya?”

“Nothin’ officer, nothin’,”

“Then get out of there and let a man in!”

img_0172The article listed the locations of theaters no longer in Decatur. I drove by a couple of them. One is now the maintenance building for the city’s equipment. One is a shopping mall.

I can’t tell you the last time I was at a drive-in movie. I sort of recall that it was a Burt Reynolds movie, where he was trying to be a dramatic actor, instead of funny, like Smokey and the Bandit.

I also recall that it rained and we steamed up the windows, but not because we were doing anything spectacular. We fixed that by starting the car and turning on the air conditioning.

I recall when stores put decals on the car doors advertising that they were air conditioned. I don’t think I ever went to an indoor movie that was not air conditioned. I find that as I age, I am less and less tolerant of heat and humidity. I get outside and try to get my outside work done early in the morning. I figure that when the school bus goes by, I can make all the noise I want to. These last few weeks, by about 10 a.m., my shirt is dripping, and I have to give it up and head for the air conditioning.

These new drive-in projection systems show picture quality similar to a flat-screen TV. Instead of the speaker you hang on your window, they pipe it into a low-power FM station and you listen to it on your car radio. That is kind of neat. I wonder how many people have to call AAA because they left the key on ACC for 4 hours and killed the battery?

I think the demise of the drive-in theater has more to do with universal air conditioning than anything else. Probably daylight saving time hasn’t helped, either. I mean, they have to wait until it is dark to show the film and by 9 p.m., the dog comes looking for me to say that it is time to go to bed.