The drive-in theater was and still is as much a part of rodding as, well, drive-in restaurants with roller skating car hops, burgers, fries, and malts. There are a great deal fewer theaters today than back in the '50s, but they're still around and still fun. I learned a great deal about life at a drive-in theater and from the movies that were shown.
For starters, did you know that the first drive-in theater was invented by Richard M. Hollingshead while experimenting with bed sheets in his New Jersey backyard?
He began this project by using a 1928 Kodak projector resting on the hood of his car and projecting the image on his makeshift screen, which was nailed to a tree, with a radio placed behind the screen for sound. He even used his lawn sprinkler to simulate rain in an attempt to test his sound system with the car windows up, down, and halfway. He identified the most important problem as the spacing and angle of the cars so that everyone would be able to see the picture with an unobstructed view. He figured it out and was given the first patent for the drive-in theater (the patent was later revoked).
As for the heyday of the drive-in theater, it appears to have been between 1958 to 1967. The following are some randomly selected states that show the rise and fall of these unique outdoor entertainment centers from the late '40s to the present. California started in 1948 with 44 theaters, climbed to 180 by 1958, and then peaked at 223 in 1967. After 1967, the numbers declined; today there are approximately 100. However, an interesting twist of fate has occurred as there appears to be a slow climb in numbers. New York also started in 1948 with 33 theaters, rose to 147 by 1958, and topped out at 154 in 1963. After 1963, their numbers declined, with approximately 33 in existence today.
Ohio led out of the gate with 88 theaters in 1948 while reaching its high of 189 in 1967, the same year as California. From then until now the numbers declined, and today there are approximately 48 sites. Indiana came aboard in 1948 with 28 theaters and reached its peak in 1958 with 125 theaters. Shortly thereafter the numbers declined, holding onto 110 sites until 1972, then the numbers dropped to approximately 31 today.
If you have ever wondered what and where the largest drive-in theaters were (or are) here's some food for thought:
Troy Drive-In, Detroit, Michigan - 3,000 cars. Panther Drive-In, Lufkin, Texas - 3,000 cars.All-Weather Drive-In, Copiague, New York - 2,500 cars.110 Drive-In, Melville, New York - 2,500 cars. Newark Drive-In, Newark, New Jersey - 2,400 cars.Belair Drive-In, Cicero, Illinois - 2,300 cars.Timonium Drive-In, Timonium, Maryland - 2,479 cars.Los Altos Drive-In, Long Beach, California - 2,150 cars
Should you now be wondering what were the smallest drive-in theaters back in the day (or now), here's some additional fodder for the gray matter:
Harmony Drive-In, Harmony, Pennsylvania - 50 cars.Highway Drive-In, Bamberg, South Carolina - 50 cars.Ponce DeLeon Drive-In, Ponce DeLeon, Florida - 60 cars.Twilite Drive-In, Nakina, North Carolina - 60 cars.Norwood, Norwood, Colorado - 64 cars
I should point out that the drive-in theater was only part of the experience. Then there were the movies. (Of course, I could do an entire diatribe on the food experience, but I am saving that for another effort!) From the mid to late '50s I was in my drive-in theater heyday myself, having seen almost every Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis movie ever made. My parents loved the drive-in. I did, too--with the snack stand and the kiddy playground, I was in my glory, but it was the movies that I learned so much from.
I was reading the Forties Limited of Orange County club newsletter when I came across the writings of another rodder who must have grown up during the same period as I, for he obviously shared many of my same learning experiences. So, with permission from the Forties Script, the following are excellent representations of just some of the things that I have learned from movies I have seen.
Things you'd never know without the movies...and they're true 'cause I saw them on the silver screen!
It's always possible to park directly outside the building you are visiting.A detective can only solve a case once he has been suspended from duty.Most laptop computers are powerful enough to override the communication systems of any invading alien civilization.You can always find a chainsaw when you need one.
Any lock can be picked by a credit card or a paper clip in seconds, unless it's the door to a burning building with a child trapped inside.
An electric fence, so powerful as to kill a dinosaur will cause no lasting damage to an eight-year-old child.
And my favorite...It doesn't matter if you're heavily outnumbered in a fight involving martial arts, your enemies will wait patiently to attack you one by one by dancing around in a threatening manner until you have knocked out their predecessors!
If you want to learn more about life through the "eyes" of a movie, you will have to go see one, but if you want to learn more about drive-in theaters, check out their Web site at www.driveintheater.com/index.htm, it's a hoot!