While not as widespread as in its heyday of the 1950s and ’60s, the drive-in movie theater is a bit of American pop cultural that manages to be at once wholesome and salacious.
In 1933, the first of its kind, called a Park-In Theater, opened in Camden, New Jersey and was awarded a patent for the innovation. Because whole families could pile into a car and watch a movie while the youngest snoozed in the back seat, it quickly became a popular diversion for young couples who no longer needed to hire a babysitter for date night.
When the patent ran out in 1949, drive-ins took off across the country, at one point numbering as many as 5,000 venues. Theater operators increased the attraction to families by building on-site playgrounds. Snack bars became sizable affairs, offering deeper menus, including dinner items like hamburgers, hotdogs and french fries. Patrons of the era will vividly remember cheesy film come-ons for the concessions shown between features (some theaters showed as many as three films). Who can forget the dancing animated snacks and insipid jingles?
The first drive-ins were noise nuisances, owing to the public address systems that broadcast the sound outside the cars, but that was solved with tinny speakers mounted on posts at each stall and hung inside the car for private listening at a customizable volume.
Because of the relative privacy inside the vehicle, drive-ins quickly earned a reputation as “passion pits.” (Sometimes, even more graphic sobriquets described their convenience for extended make-out sessions.)Soon, moviemakers were generating B-movies aimed at a teenage audience. But in-car activity could get so steamy that some were unaware that movies were even shown at the alfresco theaters.
At its height, the drive-in wasn’t limited to cars. A venue in Asbury Park, New Jersey, which was located adjacent to an airfield, provided space in the back for small planes that taxied in to enjoy the show.
Alas, the rising land values and the ease of watching movies at home eventually cut into the viability of drive-ins. But still a dedicated few (less than 500 nationwide, but represented in most every state) soldier on, catering to devotees who cherish the romance (in more ways than one) of watching a flick in the relative privacy of an automobile.
Currently, the largest in the country is the Thunderbird Drive-in, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, (with 14 screens, one currently shuttered due to storm damage). Like many, it makes ends meet by doubling as an open-air swap shop during the day, when screenings aren’t possible.