All the Outside World's a Cinema
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).
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."