The Drive-In Movie Theater Photography Project

drive-in
Copyright Craig Deman

Today we have an interview with a very interesting travel photographer. Craig Deman has done a number of photography projects, including The Drive-In Project, a look at abandoned drive-in movie theaters across America. Since today is the 80th anniversary of the drive-in theater, we decided to have him as a guest.

Welcome to Gadling, Craig! Tell us a little about the project and what attracts you to abandoned drive-ins.

You know how some people can remember many details about their childhood and teenage years and some people can only remember a few? I fall into the latter category. Even though I might not remember a great amount of the details of my childhood, I do have vivid memories of my earliest experiences at drive-in movie theaters. I remember the first movie my mom took my sister and me to at a drive-in. Can you say … “Supercalifragilisticexxpialidocious”? I remember the names of the guys I was with in my friend Mike’s trunk when we snuck into our local drive-in. Without question, I remember the details of the first girl I was “with” at a drive-in movie theater!

Today, approximately 90 percent of drive-ins are closed from their peak in the late 1950s. As a lover of architectural and landscape photography, drive-in movie theaters represent defining moments and passion for me. The distressed and decaying wood of a ticket booth, overgrown and unwieldy shrubs/trees where cars once parked, matched by the enormous scale of a screen tower all together scream as loudly to me today as if I was back in the day we laughed with joy upon successfully gaining entrance to the drive-in while sequestered in my buddy’s trunk.

Putting it simply – it’s the raw emotion, still present, from almost 50 years ago, that attracts me to abandoned drive-ins. A lot of people respond to the imagery of my Drive-in Project by referring to it as “haunting.” I’m good with that, as long as those same people’s definition of the word haunting includes “Mary Poppins” and getting busy.

%Slideshow-577%When you were doing this project, did you get to meet any folks who used to go to these drive-ins?

The people I met from Alabama to Arizona or from Nevada to New York were universally eager and open to sharing their personal experiences at drive-in movie theaters. People expressed a breadth of emotions when describing individual feelings they held in their memories about drive-ins they had visited.

Let me tell you about a couple of folks I met. I was shooting the Lake Estes Drive-in (Colorado), when I met the owners John and Sharon, in order to gain access to the projection booth. When we entered the projection booth, my eyes opened as wide as a kid being offered candy, as this was the first and only abandoned projector booth that I came across that still had a projector in it. It was dusty and needed a tune up to be sure, but it was a beautiful hunk of metal. All I could think about was what an organically perfect interior setting this was for my series. The rawness of the setting evoked such visceral emotions.

John and Sharon are planning to redevelop the land where the drive-in was located over 20 years earlier. They want a “good home” for the beautiful hunk of metal and offered me the projector. As of this interview, I haven’t figured out where I could house it. I’m still thinking about it, to the dismay of some in my family.

I came across something unique when I was researching drive-ins to shoot in Tennessee. Brothers Ed and John grew up going to the Moonglo Drive-in located in Pulaski. They own a dealership and loved going to the Moonglo when they were growing up. They loved it so much that as adults they bought the property and built their car dealership around the Moonglo’s projection booth and screen.

It was too good pass up for this project, no matter how far I had to drive to get there. Ed and John are great guys and thanks to them, I captured some wonderful images. While they’re concentrating on growing their dealership, I don’t believe it would take too much to get them to consider firing up the Moonglo as an operating drive-in movie theater.

Do you have any tips for budding photographers who want to take their own images of abandoned Americana?

Yes, I call it the three Ps – plan well, be patient as well as persistent. The Drive-in Project was shot over a four-year period in ten different states. Living in California, I traveled thousands of miles to shoot 80 percent of the drive-ins within the series. Each and every location deserved to have painstaking thought put into each image and that’s what they each received. If the lighting wasn’t right at the time I was there, I slept in the rental car, hoping the next morning would bring better light.

The three Ps came into play often during those four years, but nowhere more so than the drive-in located in Commerce, Georgia. Initially, I couldn’t even find it. So many years have passed that the drive-in is now engulfed by a full-blown forest that has hidden the remnants of the screen and ticket booth from the main road.

After finally locating the screen through the forest, I loaded up my equipment and began to hike out to setup my camera, a Mamiya RZ67. Suddenly, I felt this incredibly sharp pain in my right foot. I had stepped on a 4-inch nail that pierced my shoe and was now embedded in the ball of my foot. I said to myself, “I have come this far, I have to keep going and get the shot.”

I loosened my shoe and pulled the nail out, hiking further into the forest to a clearing where the small remaining piece of the screen was visible. As I’m setting my tripod up, I heard this rustling and am joined by two Georgia State Troopers. The troopers informed me that I was trespassing on private property, but I’d done my research and I knew the name and contact info of the property owner who had given me permission to shoot there. The troopers ended up being nice guys and were quite interested in my project. They left me to do my work and just as I was feeling good about covering the three Ps until one of the troopers, as they were walking away, said, “Watch out for snakes around here!”

What’s next for you?

I’ve started a project that involves a 1950s “Normandie Starline Mod 1” beauty parlor chair, which I have named Marilyn. Marilyn has a beautiful chrome dryer top with a pink chair with an ashtray in the left arm and a swing handle that lifts the leg rest. Marilyn will be photographed in various environments juxtaposed against outdoor landscapes, models inside my studio and street scenes.

The name of my new project is: “Road Trip With Marilyn (RTWM).” Although I am only about 20 percent into my RTWM project, I have found that Marilyn helps me in a couple of ways as a photographer. Marilyn is a great icebreaker; her physical appearance attracts and pulls people into the space she is placed in. People are anxious to play with her and pose with her chrome dryer top. I’m excited about hitting the road with Marilyn and capturing an eclectic series of photographs. Maybe we can hook up with you, Sean, while you’re on one of your upcoming adventures?

You, me, and Marilyn in the Sudan! That would make for some interesting photos. Thanks for joining us today!

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!)