All the Outside World's a Cinema

By Peter Bowen | July 15, 2008
The Camden Drive-In The Camden Drive-In, America's first

In summer, people will project films on just about anything. Peter Bowen looks at some of the different places you can see a movie. 

On June 6, 1933, a young inventor named Richard Hollingshead working at his dad's Whiz Auto Products hit upon a new idea to market car supplies. He opened an open-air movie theater in which cars would "drive in" so he could market supplies to them. Hollingshead had no idea how huge his idea would become in just 15 years when drive-ins became all the rage. And while drive-in culture has changed over the decades, each spring, in cities and towns across America, movie lovers continue to rediscover the exquisite pleasure of outdoor movies.

Since the advent of cinema, audiences have gladly forgone the convention of four walls and ceiling in order to watch a movie in the wilds. Early entrepreneurs with only a projector and a reel of film would attach themselves to circuses and traveling fairs, showing their movies late at night against a blank tent wall. In History of the American Cinema, scholar Charles Musser noted a variety of traveling outdoor shows. In 1896, for example, William Wright had installed his Animatoscope projector at the Chutes outside San Francisco. According to Musser, "The films were shown outdoors in the evening, with a different film projected every 15 minutes. The amusement remained at the Chutes on a fairly regular basis for many years."

On June 6, 1933, Richard Hollinghead screened Wives Beware, a whimsical comedy staring Adolphe Menjou at his newly opened Camden Drive-In and changed film history. But while the novelty proved an initial hit, drive-ins were still slow to catch on. Only 18 were built for the rest of 30s. And then during the war, material restrictions froze most non-military constructions.

But in 1946 their numbers started to climb to 155, and then by 1948 to 820, with Ohio being the clear leader in drive-ins per capita. The real boom, however, occurred in the 50s with the baby boomers. By 1958, there were 5,000 drive-ins scattered across America. And this boon was occurring at the same time that the number of conventional cinemas was declining (not uncoincidentally by about the same number of 5,000).

Film and Fish Program

Fish and Film Program

Social historians and cultural critics have all tried to explain the popularity of drive-ins. Suburbia, new families, randy teenagers and car culture were all part of the equation. As their popularity grew, drive-ins slowly transformed from just movie theaters to a social and entertainment nexus for the community. They added cafes, ornamental ponds, miniature golf courses, performance stages, petting zoos and even indoor cinemas to their grounds. During the day, they housed swap meets and social fairs. The All-Weather Drive-In in Copiague, NY, was so large — over 2,500 cars — that they created a train to circle around the grounds picking up people from their cars to take them to the concession stand.

In post-war America, drive-ins enabled people to create private spaces in an otherwise public arena. Cash strapped veterans could take their entire family, screaming babies and all, for an evening out. Teenagers created their own private world behind the steamed-up windows of their parents' cars. And film distributors found a lucrative way to recycle first-run films for a second or third time. Drive-ins did not, however, make everyone happy. Kerry Segrave in Drive-in Theaters: A History from Their Inception in 1933 reports on a whimsical protest that also helps explain the drive-in's allure: "In 1947 six female teenage baby-sitters picketed the Aurora Drive-In near Seattle, Washington. Their placards read: "Down with drive ins, more work for baby-sitters."


HBO Bryant Park

HBO Bryant Park

In the 40s and 50s, drive-in fever spread to other types of transportation. In 1948, Ed Brown opened up the first "Fly-In Drive-In" in Asbury Park, NJ. Small plane pilots could land and pull up next to cars for their own version of a non-in-flight movie. By the mid-1950s, at least five other fly-in theaters opened across the country. The drive-ins attracted guests by land, by air, and even by water. A theater in Winterhaven, FL, provided boats so that patrons could fish in the adjacent lake while they watched the movie. Others extended the function of the drive-in. In Monte Vista, CO, for example, the Great Western Movie Manor serves as both a hotel and theater, with rooms with large windows and glass sliding doors facing a large drive-in movie theater with the sound piped though in-wall speakers.

In the 70s and 80s, the drive-in party started to wind down. There have been many reasons given for their demise: The family-friendly B-movie fare of sci-fi thrillers and big westerns gave way to the sexploitation films of the late 60s and 70s; late night television, and, later, videotapes competed for viewer attention; multiplexes offered more variety for families. At the same time, rising property values made the land parcel surrounding a drive-in the perfect spot on which to develop the next mega shopping mall.

As drive-ins faded from the American landscapes, a series of other outdoor screenings started to emerge. In New York City, after the Bryant Park Conservation group restored Bryant Park, a once scuzzy public area adjacent to Times Square, they looked for new things to do with the space. Daniel Biederman, executive director of the Bryant Park Corporation, remembers how when on vacation with his family in Geneva, Switzerland, he encountered "open air screenings of a film on the pier and it made me thing of what we could do." Working with HBO, who signed up to sponsor the series, the Bryant Park Film Series opened in 1993. Choosing classic Hollywood films (rather than first-run fare) the series found a way to be hip and family friendly at the same time.

The idea of the urban (or carless) drive-ins picked up steam. In New York, the Bryant Park model was applied to a range of other outdoor venues: parks, alleys, river piers. And the programming was often tailored to fit the neighborhood. In the ever-so-hip Williamsburg, films like the Velvet Goldmine and The Virgin Suicides play in McCarren Park Pool, a deteriorated (and empty) swimming pool — that is, on the nights that when some local indie band isn't taking the stage. At the Socrates Sculpture Park in Astoria, Queens, the summer screening goes highbrow and international. Programmed by the nearby Museum of Moving Image, the summer series includes the Mexican indie Duck Season, the South Korean monster mash The Host, and the Iranian/French animated memoir Persepolis among a line-up that reflects one of the most ethnically diverse areas of New York.

Celestial Cinema, Maui

Celestial Cinema, Maui

Outdoor venues often stage their movies around local settings and landmarks. The Bryn Mawr Film Institute presents a screening of Rocky, the great sports story of Philadelphia, at the city's grand sports arena, the Freedoms Stadium.The Chicago Outdoor Film Festival brings thousands to Butler Park off Lake Shore Drive, with the city itself as the frame. In sprawling Museum Park at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, the outdoor screening series has been showing outdoor films among the fauna and massive modern sculpture. This year, the series celebrates the freedom of summer nights with films that go from François Truffaut's The 400 Blows to John Hughes Ferris Bueller's Day Off. In Hawaii, where the days are long and climate temperate, why would anyone at a film festival want to sit inside a theater? The Maui Film Festival answers this problem with their Celestial Cinema, a open-air arena situated on a local golf course, with glorious views of the island.

Outside of Denver at the famed Red Rocks, a concert venue nestled into an spectacular geological formation at the edge of the Rocky Mountain, the Denver Film Society present Film on the Rocks, a program of live music and outdoor films. Local bands take the stage at dusk as guests settle their blankets and picnics, and then when night descends, the movies start. Further north, outside of Bellingham, Washington, the Fairhaven Outdoor Cinema presents a similar program of music and movies with an equally majestic view of the mountains. Doug Borneman of Epic Events — the entertainment concession that now runs the community-initiated festival, explains, "The musicians are selected as a way to compliment each movie and provide a full evening of entertainment." A similar program of sound and vision can be found in Minneapolis at the Walker Art Center's "Summer Music & Movies." This summer in preparation for the election, the series picks up the theme of politics from pratfalls of the Marx Brothers Duck Soup to the paranoia of The Manchurian Candidate (the original one, of course).


Cinespia, Hollywood Mortuary

Cinespia, Hollywood Mortuary

Perhaps one of the strangest venue is the Cinespia, a summer screening series held at the Hollywood Forever cemetery in Los Angeles. Guests are invited to bring a light picnic and enjoy it with cinema's great stars, both on screen and in tombs around them. To add to the macabre ambiance, many films are screened against the white walls of mausoleums.

Film centers, known for their edgy programming, often seem to go on vacation during their outdoor summer screening series. The Wexner Center for the Arts, known for their mix of art, video and film, offers pure popcorn fare with 20 Million Miles to Earth and The Lady From Shanghai. The Sundance Institute, the bastion of American independent film, mixes festival fare with more popular movies (like Brad Bird's animated adventure The Iron Giant, the late, great Sydney Pollack's Tootsie and visual extravaganza Moulin Rouge. Jill Miller, managing director of the Sundance Institute, explains, "This year's program includes an eclectic array of such films that will play to a broad audience and will be fun to experience on beautiful summer evenings in Utah under the stars."

While most outdoor festivals pick a remarkably similar line-up of film favorites (think Casablanca, Airplane, E.T., etc.), others exploit the low-cost nature of outdoor screenings to present work that could not afford to rent a theater. In 1997, Mark Elijah Rosenberg brought his 16mm project and a sound system to the roof of his East Village tenement and invited a group of friends. Within four years, Rooftop Films had become a full-time organization, moving itself to Brooklyn with a staff of three people and an army of interns.

Santa Cruz Guerilla Cinema

Santa Cruz Guerrilla Cinema

Now nearly every city has its alternative outdoor screening series. In Philadelphia, Todd Kimmel founded the Lawn Chair Drive-In, whose summer program reflects his extensive and eclectic original 16mm film collection. This year, the series includes such gems as Brian De Palma's horror-rock opera Phantom of the Paradise and the oddball western The Jayhawkers!, which Kimmel has labeled "the #1 Gay Western of the Atomic Age." In addition, Kimmel provides obscure trailers and cartoons before each film.

While some have revived the drive-in tradition to build local communities between neighbors and artists, others have turned the drive-in into a form of direct political action. Down the coast from San Francisco in Santa Cruz, CA, a group of film lovers and radicals — not unlike the characters in John Waters comedy Cecil B. Demented — comprise the Santa Cruz Guerilla Drive-In. For them the fun is found, much like with graffiti artists, in appropriate public spaces — warehouse walls, the sides of abandoned buildings, etc. Once a location has been chosen, emails dart off to members who assemble under cover of night at some secret new screening space. As they proclaim in their manifesto, "part of our mission is reclaiming public space and transforming our urban environment into a joyful playground."


Swim party in Chino, AZ

Swim Party in Chino, AZ

Bryan Kennedy, a web developer from Berkeley, further democratized this anarchist impulse. On his website,, he explains, "We are the global guerilla drive-in movement bringing back the forgotten joy of the great American drive-in. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, what used to be a dark and decrepit warehouse wall springs to life with the sublime sights and sounds of a big-screen movie." Somewhere between popular mechanics and a populist credo, explains in meticulous detail how to use car batteries, digital projectors, FM transmitters, and the like to make your own private drive in.

In a more commercial mode, a variety of vendors, like Outdoor Movies and Backyard Theater, rent projectors and inflatable screens that can be set up pretty much anywhere. One of the recent trends is swimming pool movies, where an outdoor screen is provided for splashing audience members. Arizona State University recently threw such a pool party with a screening of Open Water, a harrowing film about a couple stranded in the ocean with sharks swimming all about them. The audience floated on inner tubes with only dark water beneath them as they watched others being attacked in the sea.

New technologies have so democratized the moviegoing experience that pretty much anyone can make their backyard, their garage, a stretch of lonely beach or an urban street a movie theater. And so every summer night can be a night at the movies.

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