Watching a Film in Your Car, Before the Age of the Small Screen
Drive-in move theaters are considered an Amarican invention. Drive-ins
became very popular in the United States after World World Two. They
combined two popular loves in America: cars and movies. So why did most of
the drive-ins later close? That was a question VOA's Christopher Cruise
often wondered about. This week on our program he looks for the answer.
The first drive-in movie theater opened in the United States in 1933.
Popular Science magazine described a theater in Camden, New Jersey, as the
first of its kind in the worldl: an open-air movie theater just for
motorists. People could watch a film on the big screen while sitting in
their car, eating, talking and relaxing.
Many drive-in theaters opened in the 1950s, as the American economy
expanded after the war and more people bought cars.
In the 1960s -- when I was a boy -- there were between 4,000 and 6,000
drive-in theaters in the United States. I lived in the northeastern state of
Maine. Not a lot of people live there. Yet my parent could take me an my
there brothers and two sisters to any of four dirve-ins located within an
hour's drive of our home. But almost as soon as drive-ins were everywhere,
their popularity began to fade. Today, fewer than 400 are still operation in
the United Sates.
April Wright is producing a documentary about drive-in theaters and the
special place they held in American culture. The film is called "Going
Attractions: The Rise and Fall of the Drive-In as an American Icon." She
plans to release it early next year on the eightieth anniversary of the
opening of the first drive-in theater.
"So at the time they flourished, it was after the baby boom, and so there
was the convergence of astrong economy and lots of kids and car culture --
people being able to afford cars. There wasn't really television at that
point in all the homes. And so it was just sort of this thing that familles
did where they saw theit wholesome for the communities, and that's when they
So why drive-ins lose their appeal? April Wight looked for the screen.
"The more I looked into it, I realized it wasn't a single factor, not only
that made drive-ins go on the deline but also what made them flourish. There
is a common denominator and it's completely cultural. They rose really
quickly -- the spike is sort of narrow. And they also declined very quickly
-- the spike there is also kind of narrow. They rose really quickly in the
late'40s and declined really quickly in the early'80s, so they had about a
40-year span of popularity."
In the 1960s, families were breaking up as the divorce rate rose sharply
in the United States. April Wright thinks that is one reason drive-ins
closed: A shared family experience like going to a drive-in movie lost some
of its appeal.
But another reason many drive-ins closed was their location. Many had been
built outside cities on land that at the time was not very valuable.
But as the American population grew, more and more people moved from the
cities to the suburbs.
Soon, many drive-in theaters found themselves surrounded by houses and
storeds rather than by forests or empty land. Now the land was very
valuable. Offers from developers to buy the land became hard to resist for
the owners. After all, fewer people were going to drive-ins, and property
taxes were increasing because the land was now worth more.
Also, in some areas, insects, especially mosquitoes, were a problem. They
would fly into open car windows during the movie. Some drive-in theaters
sold insect-killing kits. I can tell you from personal experience that these
helped, but not much.
In northern areas of the United States, drive-in theaters were open just a
few months of the year. In the north, nights can get cold even during the
summer. Blankets and portable heaters helped -- but, again, not much.