Vanishing America: The Drive-In Theater

It’s one of the icons of American civilization, combining Hollywood with car culture. The drive-in movie theater was once a mainstay of every American city, and plenty of small rural towns too. In the 1950s there were more than 4,000 of them. They were a place for families to enjoy a night out together, and for teenagers to be initiated into the games of adulthood.

Now the drive-in theater has fallen on hard times. According to The United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association, there are currently only 366 drive-ins in the United States with a total of 606 screens. The states with the most theaters are Pennsylvania (33) and Ohio (31). Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii and Louisiana sadly have no drive-ins. Many other states are in a precarious position with only one or two.

Competition from cable TV and movie rentals along with rising real estate costs have seriously hurt the drive-in theater industry, yet it clings to life. It’s gone from that great American hero – the success story – to that other great American hero – the underdog.

The first drive-in opened in New Jersey in 1933 and the idea soon caught on. Their heyday came in the economic boom years of the 1950s and ’60s. They began to feel the pinch in the 1970s with the spread of more TV channels. With VCRs and cable TV becoming popular in the late 1970s and early ’80s, things got even worse.

%Gallery-155976%Now most drive-ins are gone. Others have remained as spooky abandoned lots that offer the photographers in this article’s gallery the chance to lend atmosphere to their images. Visiting a dead drive-in theater is a bit like visiting a ghost town. It leaves you wondering about the people who used to spend time there.

Unlike with ghost towns, many of us can remember being one of those people. I remember going to the DeAnza Drive-in in Tucson, Arizona. My friend and I used to put a futon on top of her VW van and watch movies under the Arizona starlight. The DeAnza is gone now, and all that’s left is a webpage of memories.

But don’t despair, movie fans, there’s hope. The remaining drive-ins are keeping the flame lit. There are places like Hollywood Drive-in, which has been showing movies on Route 66 near Troy, New York, since 1952. New technologies like video projection are making it easier to open up drive-ins in any location where there’s a blank wall or the space for a screen. My favorite indie cinema, Ragtag Cinema in Columbia, Missouri, has done some outdoor shows in a nearby parking lot. Check out the photo gallery to see a cool Belgian drive-in using an inflatable screen.

As the great Joe Bob Briggs always says, “The drive-in will never die!”

(Clarification: The Hollywood Drive-in is on New York State Route 66, not the more famous Route 66. Plenty of businesses in New York like to play off the Route 66 designation, though, and why not? Retro entertainment is more important than nitpicking!)