Cinema #10: The Drive-In

Everyone who remembers them has fond memories of the drive-in. By the time I was old enough to enjoy them in the 70's, the peak had passed, and by the 1980's most were gone. There's something wonderful about being in the car with your family as a kid, or girlfriend as a teenager, and taking in a movie at the drive-in.

I remember setting the big speaker on window, checking out the concession stand, and even watching it from the bleachers (or swing-set) when the weather was great.  You could take small children and not have to worry about them being perfectly silent, and you could make out with you girlfriend and not worry about the whole theater watching your public display of affection.

Of course, some drive-ins still forbade heavy duty make out sessions. Take a look at these actual frames from a warning issued by the drive-in management:

I doubt many teenagers took this warning to heart; in fact, I'm sure it inspired a fair share of laughter. You've got to give them points for trying, though.

One of my wife's fondest memories is being loaded up with her siblings into the station wagon with blankets and pillows and heading to the drive-in.  It was generally not a great movie (often intended for adults), but it was the experience not the film itself that made it memorable years later.  I'd love to do the same with my kids, but, sadly, there's no drive-ins nearby.

So, if it was so damn wonderful, why'd it go bye-bye? The decline is generally attributed to three factors: (1) daylight savings, which stole an hour of darkness, (2) high real estate costs, and (3) the color television.

I'd like to add a few reasons of my own. For one, I think movies, for the most part, stopped being aimed at adults and young adults after Star Wars.  Drive-ins were a late night endeavour, so that ruled out most small children with an early bedtime. Plus, they simply couldn't have the acoustics that we enjoy today while watching big budget blockbusters.

Plus, what movies could they show? It costs big bucks these days for a theater to play a mainstream Hollywood film. The multiplex can afford it with multiple showings all day long; whereas, the drive-in could only show a couple flicks per night, and they couldn't accommodate as many people. No stadium seating at the drive-in.

If you'll recall, drive-ins used to show a lot of low budget stuff which cost very little.  Movies like Swedish Fly Girls and Billy Jack don't attact crowds like they used. to. 

Drive-ins have recently been resurrected in certain cities, but it's not the same.  They're largely art-house cult movies, and done on a shoe string. No concession stand, no playground, no charming reminders from management to go to church. It's just not the same.


  1. I worked at a drive-in in East Tennessee from 1968-1971. It was quite an experience. We never ran any public service announcements, but manager did put on a hour of recorded country/western music starting an hour before showtime. He had only two tapes that he alternated day by day (he did have a Christmas tape he played from late Nov. thru Christmas.)

    Gawd, the stories I could tell...much too involved and lengthy to go into here. We'd get the craziest movies, too: A lot of country/western musicals from Nashville, moonshine movies, your standard run of B-movies, and for some odd reason a lot of European art films (I think the manager could get 'em cheap and they often had brief nudity in 'em).

    The manager's favorite film was EASY RIDER. I couldn't fathom the reason for this, then I realized that after 1.5 hours of smoking dope, acting rebellious, and earing long hair, Dennis Hopper & Peter Fonda got blown away by two good ol' boys -- in the manager's eyes a perfect happy ending!

  2. They still have a drive-in here where I live. I've only been to it once, but it's pretty cool. You listen to the movie through your car stereo, so depending on how good your stereo is, it rivals being in the theatre.

    When I was young I remember going to one with my uncle and all my cousins. My uncle had a van, so about ten of us kids would pile in, and it was only $5 per car I think.

  3. Our local drive-in reopened a few years ago, and it's still going strong!


    They play the new stuff too. In fact, the new "Alice in Wonderland" is playing as part of a double feature this weekend!

  4. I miss the dancing burgers, fries, shakes, candy bars, and hot dogs. In the 50s some drive-ins used to sell a milkshake in a can. You shook it up real hard and then opened to have some sort of concoction. I remember loving them. Padding up to the concession stand in my pjs carrying my doll. Good times. Good times. Thanks for the memories.

  5. We actually STILL have a drive-in here in my small Massachusetts town, a tri-screen these days. They play the regular films that are out in theaters, nothing arty. All good stuff, family fun, like the old days.


  6. Land prices killed most drive-ins here in OZ - you could make better money building a subdivision on the site. Drive-ins were also known as "finger bowls" during their heyday here....

  7. Oh man, did I get a chuckle out of this one. I actually took a young lady on our first date to a drive-in screening of Billy Jack. She married me anyway! I think in our area, the drive-ins were at one time on the edge of town. Once civilization got out that way, the land prices were too tempting not to sell out. Plus, in Nebraska, there were at least four months they had to close in winter. But a no public display of affection warning, well, we would have ignored that.

  8. Buzz - Was that the Beacon in Bristol?
    I remember the Beacon and the Moonlight in the Tri-Cities area ... there was a third one whose name I can't remember--the "Twin Cities," maybe?

  9. We used to have a drive-in theater in my home town...my sister used to work the concession stand...they used to sell hamburgers and pizza. Great memories.

  10. I only went to a drive-in once, and it was pretty awesome: the 1979 re-release of JAWS, followed up with BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25th CENTURY. Wow. Thing is, I *had* to use the bathroom at one point--that point being the scene in which Ben Gardner's head pops out on Richard Dreyfuss! I didn't see that until the movie showed up on cable a year or so later. Oh well.

    I also remember driving by this drive-in in the backseat of my parents' car, and always trying to peer over the high fences surrounding it, to get a glimpse of some flesh when they played adult movies. Oh, I love the '70s!

  11. And oh yeah--after years of decrepit dormancy, it's been re-opened!


  12. Yibbleguy I was just going to ask if Buzz was talking about the one in Cocke County...yes folks you did read that right that is what the County is called, LOL.

    I remember going to one in Miami called the Thunderbird Drive-in. My mom had me and my sister convinced that the movie wouldn't start if we didn't lay down in the back of the station wagon and quit acting up. It was years later i realized the movie was on a timer and confronted her about it and she laughed, LOL.

    I think the last movie I saw at the drive-in was Teen Wolf! That or The Heavenly Kid.....


  13. I worked at the Danbury Drive-In as a projectionist. It was my first summer job home from college. What a great experience! Too much to list here, but a few of the highlights...
    - Watching the brake lights of cars intermittently turn on and off.
    - Projecting during summer thunderstorms with lightning so frequent, you couldn't see the screen.
    - Carbon arc projectors (sigh)

    The Drive-In couldn't outlast the Real estate value boom in the 80's and by 1984 it was gone. I remember a Westchester, NY Drive-In that was in full view of a large shopping center. Many a parent were shocked to leave a store only to expose their kid to a typical 70's PG scene 2-3 stories tall.

  14. YibbleGuy & Anonymous: It was the Madison Drive-In Theatre (note spelling) in Madisonville, TN.

  15. I've never been to a drive-in...always been curious though. I wonder if it was a fun as it looked on TV shows...

  16. Wal-Mart has a new, cheapy DVD collection called 1,001 TV COMMERCIALS. Several great old local drive-in ads ("go to our snack bar now!:) ads are included! Lotsa fun!


  17. The drive-in in my hometown has been operating continuously since 1951. It was even featured in a movie (The Outsiders).
    Here's some great history (with pics): http://tulsatvmemories.com/admiral.html

  18. One of my earliest memories is seeing Jaws at the drive-in. I was only 5 years old and it was scary. I saw The Black Hole and Roller Boogie too. I liked drive-ins.