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!)

Wizard of Oz 70th Anniversary Hi-Def, one night only event

Seventy years ago this year, Judy Garland’s Dorothy stepped out of Auntie Em and Uncle Henry’s house to find out she killed a wicked old witch when she landed with a mighty thud in the technicolor world of Munchkin-land.

Years after it was released, back before people started owning movies, the only way to see The Wizard of Oz was on television once a year when it was aired on network TV. All across the U.S. people gathered with family and friends in their living rooms at a set time for a viewing by the masses. Those without color TVs found people who had one in order to experience the thrill of the first movie ever shot in color. Kansas might be black and white, but Oz is almost psychedelic.

Tonight, as part of the anniversary celebration, people can experience that shared experience sensation by heading to one of the movie theaters across the U.S. that is showing the new remastered, High-Def version of The Wizard of Oz. This is a one day only event. The screenings are happening at 7 p.m. local time. According to the description of the event, the color has never been better and the movie experience is meant to replicate the experience that audiences first had back in 1939.

Along with the main movie, tonight’s audiences will see the film, “To Oz, the Making of a Classic.” This film is a documentary that includes interviews, outtakes and behind the scenes footage.

Here are the participating theaters listed by city and state. It’s an extensive list. Chances are if you live in a city, or any where near one, you’ll find more than one option. If this event is successful, I wonder if there will be a repeat showing around the holidays.

The Three Stooges Have a Museum

I like collections. I have baskets from various countries, for example. My basket collection, frankly, is piddly. Gary Lassin’s collection of Three Stooges memorabilia is enormous. He has 3,000 items on display in the museum he opened in 2004 near Ambler, Pennsylvania. The museum called Stoogeum also has a 85 seat theater where he shows Three Stooges movies.

If you go here, you can find items you probably didn’t know existed. I know that I didn’t know about them. Of course, there’s the movie posters and photos you’d expect, but there’s also cans and bottles of Three Stooges Beer and a Three Stooges Talking Bottle Opener. My husband has a Homer Simpson talking bottle opener, but the battery is dead. I bought it for him a couple years ago and I wonder if the bottle openers were made during the same time period.The museum’s front door also talks. It says “hello, hello, hello,” in the Three Stooges voices.

If you decide to go here, email Gary Lassin at the address in this article. You do have to make an appointment. One person who visited is Entertainment Tonight‘s movie critic Leonard Maltin. For movie buffs, Maltin’s blog is a fun place to hang out for awhile. Maltin gives accounts of places he’s been that are related to movies including art exhibits.

The photo is of blogger Kansas Stooge in front of the Stoogeum. He’s a Three Stooges fan as well–obviously.

Movie Costume Designs: A History Tour

A few years ago I interviewed Kristine Kearney, the head of costume design in the Department of Theatre at The Ohio State University. Kearney’s costume design expertise brought her to the sets of Fried Green Tomatoes, Shawshank Redemption and Driving Miss Daisy among others. She talked about quality fabrics, how costume designers make decisions and what colors look best for the stage.

Every year during the Academy Awards, I watch with interest the costume award nominees. These are truly the artsy folks. If you’re a person who loves costumes and can remember what actors had on in various roles, here is an exhibit you might want to check out this summer.

At the Paine Art Center and Gardens in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, “Fashion in Film: Period Costumes for the Screen” is on exhibit through September. There are 36 costumes to remember if you’ve seen them worn by Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, Gweneyth Paltrow, and Elizabeth Taylor. Let’s see, among these women we have Virginia Wolf, Karen Silkwood, a Shakespearean actor/actress, and Cleopatra. Those costumes may not be the ones on display, I just wanted to see what I could name off the top of my head. How many centuries does that cover?

The Paine Art Center and Gardens was once the estate of Nathan Paine and his wife Jessie who built the mansion beginning in the 1920s with the idea of turning it into an open-to-the-public museum. It took them until the 1940s to complete it due to financial slow downs. You can also tour it on-line.