Sunday, June 22, 2008

It's Intermission Time!

I had an entirely different article prepared for this week, but something came up that I feel has a sense of urgency to it. I'm having a hard time even bringing it up since I have selfish reasons for keeping it quiet. It's sort of like that secret parking space that you know of downtown or a really good small restaurant. I never want to tell people about my ace-in-the-hole spots so I don't have to look for a place to park or wait for a table. I don't know, though. Somehow this one seems pressing so I'm going to break my code of secrecy and let you in on it.

So what is this compelling matter? What warrants interruption of Daniel P. Daniel's blog? Well, I took the family to the local drive-in this weekend. Sounds silly now that I've written it down...but, since we're here we might as well talk about it. We loaded up the kids in the Pilot and headed to the Holiday Twin for a double feature - “The Incredible Hulk” and “Iron Man.” I remember when I was a kid my parents used to take me to the drive-in in the summer. It was an older theater in the Chicago area with a playground and extra outdoor seating. The only actual double feature I remember seeing was: “Friday the 13th” followed by “Prophecy.” Really nice for a third grader, right? I couldn't sleep in the top bunk for about a month, and I still have a fear of hairless, aquatic, radioactive bears. Still, there's something about going to the drive-in that is just plain cool. However, they are getting harder and harder to come by, and I find that sad. Especially since the venue is the only way that a family can realistically go to a movie without pissing everyone else off.

The first drive-in theater was created by Richard Hollingshead at his house in New Jersey. He mounted a projector on the hood of his car and used it to project onto a screen he had nailed to trees in his backyard. By early 1942 drive-in theaters had started their spread across the U.S. At that time there were 95 drive-ins in 27 states. During the war years pretty much everything in the U.S. came to a standstill unless you worked at a steel mill or a tire plant, but by 1948 there were 820 drive-in theaters across the U.S. When the Baby Boom hit most theaters found a new use for that area between the front row and the screen, adding a playground. People started to arrive early so their kids could play, and after a workout on the playground a trip to the concession stand was in order. The drive-in boom was under way, going from less than 1,000 in 1948 to close to 5,000 by 1958.

As the size and number of drive-ins increased, many went from having just a
playground to installing miniature trains, pony rides, boat rides, talent shows, miniature golf courses, and animal shows. Theaters would open the gates hours before the movie would start so customers could bring the kids early. The theater we used to go to would show cartoons and “The Three Stooges” while we waited for the initial feature and ate junk food. A few theaters combined the car hop with the movie and gave the customers the ability to order concessions from their car. Coincidentally, we stopped at the A&W in Berthoud on the way this weekend which still has the car hop system. To increase sales the intermission trailers were invented. I love how crappy the food looks in these old trailers.

In the 60's and 70's the number of theaters dropped from about 5000 to around 3500. Everyone was apparently too busy dropping acid and doing coke. Plus, the movies sucked. The hay day was gone, and many theaters even pulled out their playground equipment since few families were attending. Real screen gems like "TNT Jackson" and "Car Wash" start to target the teen and adult audience so less family films are available.

The 80's started out fair and got very bad before the end...and not just for the drive-ins. Low attendance almost kills the drive-in (and high-schools for that matter). Numbers drop from 3500 theaters to 900. Cable TV and VCR's bring movies right to the living room so nobody leaves home anymore, and the burbs start encroaching everywhere.

In the 90's, the number of theaters closing slows down. The crowds and the families return. The crowd is filled with mostly families with young children, just like the crowd of the 50's. Some drive-ins reopen in the late 90's.

We are still loosing some drive-ins, but the numbers are stable. Now, the land is sometimes worth more to developers so the lots are sold in order to throw up more cookie-cutter houses and condo complexes. The burbs have encroached all the way to the property lines of the theaters, and the new jackass neighbors complain of the noise. Hollywood charges almost excessive rates for the film reels. Thankfully, some of the old theaters are hanging in there. After all, where else can you slug down some beers while watching two movies with the kids for $6. I encourage everyone to visit their local drive-in in order to save this piece of American nostalgia. So get out there, let the kids play, stay up past your bedtime, feel up your girlfriend, and have some fun.

Don't know if you have a drive-in nearby? Click here.

1 comment:

mattmonsess said...

Dan, Thanks for opening our eyes to something that should have been obvious. We have a drive-in 20 minutes from home I assumed was closed. I did some checking and I was WRONG! Incredible Hulk&Dark Knight double feature in August. Let me know if I should save you a seat. Thanks again Matt M