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!)

Video Of The Day: Time Brushing Istanbul

Recently a Turkish friend asked my daughter Vera’s middle name. It’s Alcazar, my grandmother’s maiden name from Trinidad, and more commonly known as a Moorish Spanish word for fortified palace. I was surprised to hear the response, “Oh, like the cinema?” It turns out there is an Alkazar movie theater just a few miles away from us on Istanbul‘s busy Istiklal Caddesi. Opened in the 1920s with various incarnations as a popular, adult, and art house movie theater, the Alkazar closed two years ago just before I moved here, but the facade remains. The above video by Vimeo user mustafa emre uses a “time brush” technique to show the historic building in its heyday and more recently. It’s a fun way to show how the past is just below the surface.

Seen any historic travel videos or photos? Share them with us by leaving a comment below or adding to the Gadling Flickr pool for another Video of the Day.

Video of the Day: Brett Erlich’s Unconventional Travel Tips

Movies are full of wild ideas about travel. From Airplane! to Castaway, there’s no shortage of bizarre travel tales in cinema. Thankfully, Current packed many of those moments into this video from The Rotten Tomatoes Show starring Brett Ehrlich.

So, whether you want to ride a dragon, pilot a plane or just get from Point A to Point B as dramatically as possible, look to the movies for your travel tips. It’s where you’ll find the most realistic suggestions.

If you have a great travel video that you think we might enjoy, share the link in a comment below. We could feature it as our next Video of the Day!

Nomading Film Fest seeks travel filmmakers

Ever wanted to make a movie about your travels? Perhaps you already have? The Nomading Film Festival wants to talk to you. From now through April 2011, this new travel-focused film festival, based in Brooklyn, NY, is accepting submissions from aspiring travel-focused filmmakers everywhere.

The idea behind the Nomading Film Festival is simple. The fest’s creators “believe that stories caught on film, while traveling, are some of the most entertaining, educating, beautiful, and authentic. These are stories which should be shared, acknowledged, and awarded.” Their film festival is the embodiment of this ideal, and they’re striving to get everyone and anyone who likes travel to submit their own entry. Think you lack the movie-making skills to enter? Think again. The philosophy of the Nomading Film Fest is that we are travelers first and filmmakers second. Anyone with a simple point-and-shoot digital camera, Flip or iPhone, a love for travel and some basic editing software is encouraged to enter.

If you’ve ever dreamed of turning that vacation video or backpacking documentary into a reality, here’s your chance. Upload your 15 minutes-or-less video here (along with a nominal entry fee). Selections will be finalized by May next year and the festival will be held June 17th and 18th of 2011 in New York City. Get those cameras rolling!

Easy Rider: greatest road movie of all time

Dennis Hopper died on Saturday. He had a long career as an actor, director, photographer, and painter.

I’ll remember him as the director, co-writer, and co-star of Easy Rider, which shot to the top of my list of favorite movies when I first saw it at age fourteen and has stayed there ever since.

I had never seen a movie like it before. Every shot of László Kovács’ camerawork looked as carefully composed as a painting. It had a rocking soundtrack, cool characters, and an epic journey on the open road. I was also intrigued by a dark undercurrent that got darker as the movie progressed. What more could an angsty teen itching for freedom ask for?

As I grew up I kept coming back to it, like when I chose to major in archaeology as people around me shook their heads and muttered words like “practicality” and “earning power”. I watched it several times in my twenties, and again in my early thirties when I decided not to pursue my Ph.D., as my colleagues urged me to reconsider and not “waste all that work”. It’s followed me through ten years as a writer, a career with less “practicality” and “earning power” than archaeology.

The more I watched Easy Rider the more I saw in it. While it’s superficially about Wyatt and Billy, two friends who have scored big on a drug deal and set off on a cross-country motorcycle trip headed for Mardi Gras and a life of freedom, it’s about much more than that. The film is laden with symbolism. Their cocaine dealer is named Jesus and Wyatt’s prostitute friend is named Mary, just for starters. Plus their visits with hippies and communes show a stark despair under all the drugs and flowers. The rural Americans they meet are hostile, and the two friends get threatened and jailed at every turn. As the film progresses you see what Dennis Hopper and coauthors Peter Fonda and Terry Southern were getting at. Two young men with all the money they need are on a quest for freedom, and they fail–miserably, horribly, and, because they rejected a better path when it was offered, inevitably.

Many other films are beautifully shot and carry deep messages under the surface glitter, so why is this my favorite? It comes down to one scene, one line really, a line I’ve always felt but never heard anyone else say. I didn’t need to hear that line at fourteen because I had already figured it out for myself, but it sure helped to know someone else felt the same.

At one point Wyatt and Billy pick up a nameless, arrogant hitchhiker. While camping in an old Indian pueblo Wyatt turns introspective and quietly asks nobody in particular,

“You ever want to be somebody else?”

The hitchhiker, too cool to communicate, tokes on his joint and says, “I’d like to try Porky Pig.”

Wyatt gives a little laugh, pauses a moment as he stares into the campfire, and says softy,

“I never wanted to be anybody else.”


Thanks Dennis.