The Legacy and Influence of the American Drive-In Theater





Drive-in theaters have played a significant part in the history of cinema within the latter half of the twentieth century, as well as in American popular culture. Despite this, the vast majority of film history texts and even history books focusing on the 1950’s era fail to mention the influence of the drive-in, as well as its affect on the film industry, the movies themselves, and perhaps most importantly, spectatorship. It seems largely inaccurate to ignore such a prominent artifact of film and American culture that was practiced actively in these recent previous decades, and so this thesis seeks to provide a more complete view on the legacy and influence of this fleeted source of cinema.

In this thesis, I will explore the affect of these forgotten venues in the previously noted areas through examining the concept, history and decline of the American drive-in. I will then specifically address the influences in which the drive-in theater had on American culture, including automobile and film technology, popular culture consumerism, and American ideals. I will turn my focus to the issue of spectatorship at the drive-in by examining the audience’s new and revolutionary role in contrast to Classical Hollywood cinema, particularly in reference to the emerging attractions, or distractions, available in the drive-in theater environment, as well as how this new spectatorship is propagated in current generations.  Additionally, I will introduce how spectatorship theory has been affected since the alterations in viewing mode practiced at the drive-in theater and thereafter. In end, I will be able to analyze the death of the American drive-in theater, whether or not the decline was valid, and what kind of legacy such a cinema has left.


Chapter 1: The Evolution of the Drive-In Theater

Birth of a Nation’s Drive-In: 1933-1942

 Quite fitting to the name, the idea behind the drive-in was initiated in a driveway.  In 1933, after tacking a white screen between two trees, Richard M. Hollingshead Jr. observed a projection of his own family history from his driveway while seated inside his car. Hollingshead, an employee of his father’s automobile company as well as a family man, understood the appeal of such an innovation immediately—by utilizing the automobile, cinema could now become a family activity. Parents would no longer have to hire a babysitter in order to enjoy a night out; if so inclined, they could even bring the family dog.  No dressing up would be required, so families could easily go straight from work or a home dinner and out for entertainment with hardly any preparation time. Above all, the car could offer a sense of comfort that a foreign theater may not have been able to give, especially to young children. With this, Hollingshead became “the father of the drive-in,” and committed himself to the project of its development.

But actualizing the idea required more motivation than solely family convenience. During the times of economic hardship, money was, of course, a valid concern. Hollingshead was encouraged early on when a local theater manager observed that “although a majority of his customers were on relief, they remained customers” (Segrave 2). Hollingshead’s timing couldn’t have been better.  Due to the Great Depression, theater attendance rates had dropped considerably—from nearly 90 million admissions to 60 million.[1] In June 1933, however, President Roosevelt issued the National Industrial Recovery Act, which marked the return to the box office: “receipts bottomed out in 1933 at $480 million, gradually growing to $810 million in 1941, which slightly exceeded the $720 million receipts of 1929” (“The Depression and Industry Finances”). Thus, Hollingshead’s vision came concurrently with the returning rise of viewership, as well as economic stimulus.

The “father of the drive-in” foresaw three major problems with the realization of the drive-in. The first concerned the screen. In order to make a profit, he believed that the drive-in needed a larger screen than the indoor theater screen in order to attract and appeal to customers. This was soon solved: a local screen supply company confirmed that it could provide the appropriately sized screen, as well as a projector that could match at a distance. The second problem would concern sound. Projecting audio for an entire audience seated within their automobiles would be a challenge. RCA was conveniently the next-door neighbor to the Hollingshead auto parts plant and created a three speaker system to project over the entire audience. In the future this would present conflict: the noise angered drive-in neighbors considerably, and the audience came to realize that the sound reached the back row of cars more slowly, but for the time, the problem was solved. Lastly, the actual achievement of the patent would be difficult, as courts debated whether such a thing was patentable.[2] But alas, the patent was finally granted on May 16, 1933, and construction on the first drive-in theater began immediately (though costs of construction are uncertain and estimations hit as high as $60,000, Boxoffice reported this final sum as $25,000).

On June 6, 1933, the simply-named “Automobile Movie Theater” opened its gates to Camden, New Jersey residents, the marquee plainly reading “Drive-In Theater.”[3] At an admission of 25 cents per car and per person,[4] the lot was packed with a full house for the 1932 British comedy, Wife Beware. But even after a week, sales for the Camden drive-in dropped, as Variety noted, due to hot weather (90-98 degrees) and high humidity. Despite the slow start of the American drive-in movie theater due in part to its seasonal appeal, drive-ins had opened all over the country by 1941 and popularized in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, central Arkansas, and Miami. 

Quickly, a conflict originated between indoor theater owners and drive-in owners, but in a more severe way than just friendly competition. Major studios, specifically the “Big Five” (Paramount, Twentieth Century Fox, Warner Brothers, MGM, RKO), played the side of indoor theater owners, who claimed that drive-in theaters stole ticket sales from indoor theaters.  Variety expressed these concerns, stating that drive-ins “may eventually represent a serious threat with organized operation in many parts of the country” (Segrave 30). Because of this distribution blockade, drive-ins were confined generally to B quality films—including westerns, detective stories and romance dramas—and released through independent studios such as Columbia, United Artists and Universal.[5] A handful of lawsuits were eventually issued against the major studios in their bias and presented to the Supreme Court. The Paramount decree of 1949 finally allowed drive-in theaters (and other theaters alike) the opportunity to show studio films, as well as motivated competition.[6]  Additionally, while studios were involved the legal process and busy opposing handing over theater ownership, drive-ins were able to step up as a new and desirable form of exhibition and ownership.[7] But while the rulings helped break the monopolies of distribution, they in turn led to stricter distribution rights from the studios, which began to charge a larger flat rate for the film as well as require drive-ins to “prove they could pay” in order to have their request considered.[8]

But in all reality, the indoor theater owners were misguided in their accusations. According to box office numbers as well as several nation-wide polls, drive-ins did not directly influence the attendance of the indoor theaters. Most patrons of the drive-in admitted to visiting the indoor theater just as regularly as before the drive-in’s appearance, citing the drive-in as more appropriate for their family outings and indoor theaters as more respectable for dates. Instead, any kind of fluctuation in attendance numbers for indoor theaters could be equally observed in drive-in attendance, justified both through Depression trends and World War II.[9] But even in the neglect inflicted upon the drive-in theaters by the Big Five, drive-ins somehow found a way to survive as well as grow, drawing family audiences by the hundreds. Time Magazine verifies this in 1941: “despite the fact that producers refuse to sell Drive-Ins anything by old A pictures, punk Bs and westerns, most of them manage to make a respectable profit.”

The outstanding growth exhibited in the eight years after inception was halted temporary in 1942 as the United States engaged in WWII. The “imminent boom” of the drive-ins was virtually killed by the war due to restrictions on war-time material or rationing: a 1941 survey announcing fifty new drive-ins for 1942 boasted of theaters that were never built.[10] Here inlay one of the most significant differences between the drive-in and the indoor theater: the automobile.  The drive-in suffered not because of the film industry, which in fact still flourished during the war through a flood of government-supported patriotic and war-themed films, but due instead to the rationing of materials—most specifically, gasoline. In 1943, a Rhode Island theater shut down for an entire season “because of restrictions imposed by the Office of Price Administration in respect to the use of gasoline for pleasure driving” (Segrave 33). Through the war, the drive-in continued to suffer, and its future seemed stagnant.  


Postwar and the Golden Age: 1946-1959

 Japan surrendered in August of 1945, ending the Second World War. The end of WWII, for several reasons, was largely responsible for the revival of the drive-ins.  Returning American soldiers were welcomed with the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, better known as the G.I. Bill. This act stipulated that the Federal Government would: provide tuition and all other associated fees to a college or other accredited institution, make home or business loans more readily available, and in general, to provide benefits to the returning veterans to assist in more effective reintegration.[11] In the following seven years, “approximately 8 million veterans received educational benefits” (“Servicemen’s”). Through higher education, and subsequently a higher paying career, veterans and their families were exposed to a disposable income, serving as quite the contrast to the previous decade’s families in the Great Depression.[12]  Higher incomes, home ownership (veterans were responsible for 20 percent of new houses built after the war[13]), and sudden mass possession of the automobile contributed to creating a middle class, as well as American suburbia.

Since the war had ended, the war machine and automotive industry was left with a surplus of material that could now be distributed into the manufacturing of the American automobile. Because of this, automobiles were made cheap and affordable to the middle class. Sales on new cars “jumped from just 69,500 in 1945 to 6.7 million in 1950” (Melnick 119).

With this, the concurrent development of the mass-produced automobile with American family culture understandably paralleled the rise of the drive-in theater.  Cars became the dominant form of transportation in the postwar age, due largely to the recently-created urban sprawl. This new postwar generation was the first common class to own automobiles, and an excursion to the theater added an attraction that the indoor theater could not match.[14] “What Americans want,” writer Lloyd Wendt stated, “is to get into their new automobiles and drive someplace” (qtd. in Segrave 37).  That “someplace” must have been the drive-in: in January 1946, only 102 drive-ins existed across America; by 1949, there were nearly 1,000.[15]

Thanks to the baby boom (3.47 million births in 1946 alone, compared to the average of 2.8 in the early 1940’s[16]), America was in search of a family activity and affordable entertainment. The drive-in, as Hollingshead had envisioned, was the answer. During these years, family groups comprised 72 percent of the drive-in’s patrons.[17] Drive-ins represented the American family values and moral cues that resonated throughout the postwar era: for instance, they came equipped with playgrounds, merry-go-rounds, mini-golf and other family activities in addition to the movies. Stanford Kohlberg, owner of the Starlite Drive-In, assured his community in reference to his theater that “parents know their youngsters won’t wind up in a beer hall…we don’t sell any alcoholic drinks. We even have attendants in the rest rooms to see that nobody spikes the soft drinks. The drive-in is the answer to the problem of wholesome amusement for teenagers” (qtd. in Segrave 66).

The average drive-in drew 93,100 admissions a year, and the maximum capacity by the 1950’s was approximately 1,300 vehicles.[18] However, problems soon began to surface. With the increasing size, elaborateness and, more significantly, cost of drive-in theaters in the late 1950’s, as well as the new culture of the next approaching decade, the drive-in seemed to be anticipating more popularity than then public realistically desired.


Downfall and Death: 1959-1980’s

 Within only a decade of its peak, the drive-in began its decline. The 1960’s represented a new culture, as well as a new audience. In order to survive the dropping ticket sales, it was essential for the drive-in to adapt to the times, and essentially to reinvent itself for the present generation in hopes of creating a new audience. These years marked the end of the moralistic family values and the replacement of the drive-in with the “passion pit.”

As early as 1960, children’s playgrounds disappeared and were swapped for screenings of rated R or X films. This was due both in part to the maturing audience, now mostly comprised of teenagers to 25 year olds, as well as the stringent distribution rights that major studios still enforced in opposition to the drive-in theaters.  Additionally, such films had newly popularized after the recent abolishment of the Production Code, and the new fan-base of the drive-in desired material now considered fair game for filmmakers, such as drug addiction, alcoholism, sex and juvenile delinquency.[19]

But a major problem of these years, as well as the years to follow, was attributed to the individual theater upkeep. Drive-ins across the nation were neglected in the years following the “golden age”: screens went unpainted, speakers were faulty, restrooms and snack bars went unmaintained, and the general management was unreliable.[20] These problems, of course, were due in part to the economic hardships each theater encountered in the decline. In the 1970’s, theaters faced major safety issues, as screen towers constructed from wood began to erode.[21]

The progression of indoor cinema also caused conflict for the drive-in. Multi-screening in indoor theaters was realized in the late 1960’s and 1970’s, which was something drive-ins could not easily match due to light reflection of the sun at dusk. Plus, budgets for any form of renovation or reconstruction were non-existent. With the progression of technology, specifically in sound, the drive-in was simply unable to keep up financially: because of this, many audiences viewed the drive-in less as a pleasure and more as a chore.[22]

As an example of the fleeting 50’s ideals, vandalism and theft increased substantially within the 1970’s and 80’s. In the latter decade, implementation of armed security guards around the premises were not uncommon, and were used, as one theater owner explains, to look “for weapons, guns, rifles and so on. Unfortunately, they find some” (qtd. in Segrave 187).

The 1970’s oil shock yielded only distress for the drive-in, but the biggest blow it could take came in the 1980’s with the wide introduction and obtainment of both cable television and VCR’s. The theaters which managed to exist proceeded to show features a crushing four weeks behind the larger indoor theaters, resulting in a very modest or meager income.[23] As a last resort, many theaters attempted to turn profits in the day-time or their off-season months by renting the land as space for swap meets, fairground, or local Regional Transportation District bus parking.


The Present Age… and Beyond

As of 1998, there were fewer than 800 functioning drive-in movie theaters,[24] and that number is positively lower today. In present, the few functioning theaters act primarily as displays of nostalgia or novelty instead of legitimate movie outlets. Occasionally, a vintage car show will be paired with a reparatory print, invoking to some extent an involvement of the community, but the larger role once played by drive-ins is now defunct in daily society.

However, it seems too simple to ignore decades of cinema history, especially when drive-ins exhibited a culture for film so characteristic of America. Kerry Segrave, author of Drive-In Theaters: A History from Their Inception in 1933, recognizes the sentiments of Washington DC’s Diane Huff: “I just hope they never get rid of drive-ins. It would be like taking a piece of America” (192). The following chapters seek to demonstrate this eloquent thought by exploring how the drive-in has affected various aspects of American culture as well as spectatorship, showing that the disappearance of drive-ins might indicate a loss of “America” as well as film history.



Chapter 2: The Influence of Drive-Ins on American Consumerism and Culture

The Car at the Drive-In

It goes without saying that the automobile was a fundamental ingredient of the drive-in. As examined briefly in Chapter One, the development and integration of the automobile into American culture and daily life complimented the rise of the film industry in the postwar years. It seems only natural, then, that the drive-in theater would have profound effects on American car culture and industry. The car came to represent more than just a common seat to the audience: it was, of course, an extension of the home unit. While the automobile was not made specifically as a component to the drive-in theater, the rise of car culture in America during the 1950’s changed this drastically. At the peak of the golden age of drive-ins, the outdoor theater and automobile were literally made (or manufactured) for each other.

In the fifties, drive-in owners took up a campaign to abolish tinted windows in cars because, as they argued, the tinted glass negatively affected a viewer’s experience. The argument was moreover fueled more in part to the introduction of 3D films, which were expected at the time to revolutionize the market. Tinted windows made it nearly impossible for color details to be seen properly and therefore would limit drive-in audiences if 3D began mass circulation. Surprisingly, the campaign succeeded due to a survey that examined tinted windshields in relation to safety issues—it revealed how reaction speed was negatively affected during the night. Automobile manufacturers complied to suit safety protocol, but on whole, these industries were largely indebted to drive-ins to begin with: calculations show that 1950’s patrons drove approximately 17,631,720 miles every single day going to and from drive-in theaters.[25]

In addition to the previous, automobile companies were inspired to make other changes in their products to make drive-in viewing experience more pleasurable. This included a “horn that was inoperable with the ignition off as well as windshield wipers that operated from the battery and didn’t require the engine to be running” (Segrave 170). Also, in-car heating was developed and excelled incredibly in the coming years,[26] making it possible for drive-ins to operate in colder climates more readily. But these developments did not come without failures to precede them. The 1956 “Weathermaster” unit was invented before the age of mass air conditioning and “featured water pumped through the pipe, then sprayed over the lot as a mist by a rotating blade” in hopes of cooling the whole lot, which needless to say was quite ineffective.[27] Central air-conditioning was attempted in Lake Worth, Florida, where air was pumped through underground asbestos pipes and emerged from a small car-side hose. However, small critters or insects would commonly crawl inside the underground piping during the day, and “when patrons turned on the air-conditioning device, they more than likely had a mouse or another small varmint blown into their lap” (Sanders 63). On the other end was the “Auto-Voice” which in 1949 was intended to be a speaker/heater in one, but the product was unable to sell due to sound interference by the emerging air.[28]

Accessories were also manufactured for automobiles. One of the most widely used of these was the automobile bug-screen. Initially, the car window had to be left open in order for sound projection to be audible, which caused irritation for patrons around sunset in areas with high insect populations. This was a more sensible approach to the mosquito and insect problem, which for some time had been solved by the “non-toxic” spray of DDT across the lot, in the food court, in the car, and in the projection booth[29] (DDT, of course, is a deadly carcinogenic poison which was later banned by the United States government in 1972).

In later years, car culture began to fade. Once representing “power, sex, freedom, and…more than mere transportation” (Salamone 54), the culture traded its meaning for safety and economy. The comfortable bench seats were replaced by a need for efficiency in the compact car during the 1960’s. In the seventies, sales of Toyota and Honda cars expanded greatly in America due to the increasing concerns with fuel economy, while the cost of automobiles in general increased dramatically within the 1980’s. The rise of the compact car meant cramped quarters for viewers, as well as the decline of a family audience,[30] as compacts remain separated even today in function from the standard family sedan or minivan.


Drive-In Concessions

Arguably as essential to the drive-in as the screen, projector and automobile was the food concession stand. The presence of food and refreshment was, of course, one of the details that contributed to the audience’s comfort. The Camden theater installed a concession stand a week after opening to sell lunch items and beer to “reinforce the idea that a drive-in was a place to go to watch a movie, have a meal and a beer, things you couldn’t do in an indoor theater” (Segrave 9). The availability and wide range of items available at concessions were, then, one of the qualities that set the drive-in apart from the indoor theater. 

In the 1930’s, audience members more often than not brought their own packed meals to the drive-in. But this changed radically after the war, probably for the specific convenience that they brought to the family audience. Several forties theaters even offered bottle-warming services to the mothers for baby bottles.[31] Furthermore, concessions could be purchased at any time during the film and sometimes were made even more accessible by a rolling concessions car that passed through the lines of cars.

Ansel M. Moore, a writer for Boxoffice, believed that the concessions were the only reason Americans went to the drive-in.  While it may not have been the only reason, it was a fundamental one. A drive-in theater could expect 35-40 percent of its profit from food and beverage alone,[32] generally in the sales of popcorn, candy, hamburgers, frankfurters, coffee, hot cocoa, ice cream, peanuts, cigarettes and soft drinks. Sometimes full meals were offered, such as a half a chicken. Coca-Cola bottlers provided rolling carts to theater owners (and presented a 100 dollar profit on each car load). These meals and refreshments were indicative of the times: in the 1950’s, “the more casual the food and the setting, the better it seemed” (Salamone 39). In later decades, concessions included egg rolls and pizza.[33]

Concessions were important to the success of the drive-in during the postwar 40’s, but that was nothing compared to the coming years. In the 1950’s, the concession market was researched and perfected in order to progress efficiency and service standards. The station style stands, which were able to serve only one customer at a time per clerk, were converted to a cafeteria style (or buffet line style) layout. The self-service of these new concessions increased profit as well as speed: theater owner E.M. Loew reported a 27 percent concession sales increase after switching.[34] Best of all for drive-in owners, the large cafeteria layout was a trait intrinsic to only the drive-in, since indoor theaters could not include a similarly large concession within their premises.[35] With this, the drive-in theaters were able to sell four times more than the average indoor theater in concessions.[36]

Technology was later relied on to aid the ease of refreshment. An audience member could, in the coming years, press a small button located on the side of the speaker to call attention to concession clerks through the implementation of the “talkback” system, a process that turned out to be quite pricey for wiring and installation. Concessions were supported through the screen itself, which during admission would encourage patrons in advertisements to visit the concession stands to get a snack or drink.[37] In fact, with the importance of the food consumerism rising, innovators considered placing drive-ins around shopping malls, for the moviegoing experience had transitioned into a possible form of shopping anyway.[38] The vast display of this consumerism in the fifties was not uncommon; advertising had worked its way into popular culture as well as daily life. Catchy slogans found place in conversation and audiences actually delighted in commercials (for instance, the popular Speedy Alka-Seltzer commercial with its line “plop, plop, fizz, fizz”); “it was often hard to tell the difference between entertainment and advertising, and not too many people really worried about the issue” (Salamone 62).


Technology in Exhibition

If there was a component to the drive-in that was never fully realized, it would ironically be the actual exhibition of the film. Theater owners had, as noted in Chapter One, experienced problems with the sound: it was too loud and angered close-by neighbors, which resulted unfortunately in several lawsuits for theater owners. This led to an influx of sound experimentation technology, including “sound in ground” (which failed miserably), more dispersed speakers, speakers hanging off the car door, and fixed speakers beside the car door. None of these offered the pleasure of volume control. Weather elements such as rain or wind severely altered and affected the quality of sound and produced poor and unsatisfactory results for the audience. Sound projection, then, represented a major flaw in drive-in theaters and subsequently threatened their actual existence.

In 1941, RCA announced the development of individual car speakers with volume control that would hang on the doors of cars. Because of wartime, however, production and use could not occur until 1946. By the time the speakers were implemented, the theaters experienced so much theft of the individual speakers, complaint of car-door scratching, or even the occasional accidental drive-away with the speaker still attached to the door that some other sort of sound projection means was needed immediately. It was the 1950’s that brought the hopes of implementing sound over the car radio.

Initially, some drive-ins offered an install service that would outfit a car with compatible equipment that connected to the radio for sound: patrons had to visit weeks in advance of a showing for the installation of the little black box device. Later in the decade and carrying over into the 1960’s, radio transmission became available through low frequency AM waves. This was convenient for various reasons: 97 percent of cars at the time carried AM, and all other patrons could easily carry in a portable radio, or borrow/rent one from the theater.[39] In addition, these frequencies did not require owners to possess a license from the FCC like higher frequency stations. Broadcasting over the radio facilitated further developments, such as broadcasting in multiple languages (the first film to do this was Star Wars at a Los Angeles theater in the late 1970’s), but also posed more problems. The AM stations could not offer stereo, making sound quality still a valid concern. With the progression of indoor sound technology, indoor theaters began to represent more of a threat to drive-ins than previously anticipated. In 1989, the FCC placed a ban on low frequency AM waves in order to assign the waves to new radio stations.[40]

Means of projection and screen were by far the least progressive out of any developments pertaining to the drive-in. That is not to say that such progressions weren’t attempted. Screen technology witnessed constant experiments, and at the time such “progressions” were always hailed as revolutionary. In reality, these developments in product (such as aluminum or porcelain screen) could never compare to the initial screen materials of plastic and asbestos, and generally flopped within months, bringing any anticipatory theater into debt.[41]

The major problem presented with drive-in theater projection continued to be the fact that films could only be shown at night. This obviously inhibited the amount of profit a theater could take in when compared to an indoor theater, which could run throughout the day or offer discounted and popular prices for matinee showings. In fact, many owners bound together to protest and resist daylight savings time, as early as 1949.[42] In 1965, the idea of daylight screens was introduced which was, as Hollywood Reporter boasted, a “revolutionary new process to permit daylight operation of drive-in theaters…the greatest innovation in motion picture screens since CinemaScope and Panavision.” The year 1972 witnessed the complete development of five models.  All five failed drastically. [43]

But by far the largest set back the screen of the drive-in encountered in relation to the indoor theater was brightness. At best, even in the most ideal dark of night, a drive-in could only match about one-fifth of the brightness of an indoor screen. Luminosity of screen therefore negatively affected the quality of the drive-in experience for the audience. An observer commented that the low standards of the drive-in screen “shows how very adaptable the human eye, and perhaps how very amenable the human being, can be” (qtd. in Segrave 133), which is an idea that will be addressed more thoroughly in Chapter Three concerning audience and spectatorship.


A Representation of American Culture

To the film, refreshment, automobile and even technological industries, the American drive-in theater represented a means of profit. Even the oil industry participated in the market exploitation of drive-in patrons: gas stations would hand out coupons for theater discounts during cold weather to increase drive-in participation, as idling cars used a reasonable portion of their gas for heating.[44] But what did the drive-in represent to the consumer—or more precisely, the American patron?

First and foremost, the drive-in represented community involvement and family togetherness. Groups of four were initially more likely to visit the outdoor cinema, while groups of two went to the indoor theater.[45]  But more specifically, the majority (54 percent) of these groups contained children.[46] It is little known to today’s generation of drive-in patrons that exhibition sites once largely housed a number of other “attractions.” These included but were not limited to: fireworks shows, singers, entertainers, vaudeville-type acts, playgrounds, merry-go-rounds, mini-golf, dancing space or floors, shuffleboard, horseshoes, pony rides…and even laundry service.[47] In fact, the National Association of Drive-In Theaters encouraged its members to book live talent, especially since the sideshows or opening acts could be used to increase early attendance—thus increasing concession sales. These were activities intended to stimulate the community’s interest and persuade the patron in believing the drive-in theater was integral to the success of the neighborhood.

However, the drive-in represented another significant concept for American culture: sex. Indicative of the 1950’s culture, the actual existence of “the problem” was largely denied by most theater owners (and dating back to the 1930’s), though police often were kept present to monitor the premise for “neckers,” while managers were trained on how to react to such “risky” patrons. [48] Drive-in theaters remained the only possible escape for hormonally-driven teens, especially in a culture and age in which “baggage and marriage were prerequisites for a man and woman to check into a motel” (Salamone 34-35). Maryland at one point imposed an 11pm curfew to drive-ins, described in the ruling as “licensed petting places”[49] and known to many as “passion pits” or the “park and pet.” Kentucky drive-in manager Dick Stemen describes: “Back in the Forties and Fifties it was all rassling and steaming up the windows…I can look out some nights on my back row and I won’t see a single head. But I’ll tell you something, we don’t have any trouble out here. I mean none. Kids are more sophisticated” (Segrave 152).

Perhaps the most obvious change from the golden era’s family culture into that of the “passion pit” was through the actual films being shown. As noted previously, drive-ins never seemed to be on good terms with major studios: Hollingshead recalled that “the first film at the drive-in was three years old and cost us $400 for four days. The last time the film had run was in a little South Camden movie [house] that paid $20 a week for it” (Sanders 49). With limitations placed on more classic and popularized blockbusters by distributors through “no drive-in” policies, drive-in theaters were forced to resort to the “blood, breasts and beasts,” as Joe Bob Briggs of the Dallas Time Herald explained. The purpose of these films, as Frank A. Salamone explains, was to encourage the couple to move closer together, with horror films doubling as “make-out” films (168). Such films, he argues, produced what is now known as the “modern language of rebellion.”

Suggestive sex was seen on screen as early as 1951 in films like How to Take a Bath, The Burning Questions, and Guilty Parents. But in the 1960’s, these B pictures became more explicit, and many drive-ins turned to soft core pornography (this was due in part to television: independent features once made for drive-ins were later distributed to TV for larger profits and wider circulation). The patron responded admirably to these rated R films, outgrossing G pictures (and later PG as well) by 3 or 4 to 1. Drive-in owners even received many specific requests in the 1980’s to include more R rated movies with simulated sex-scenes.[50] Simply put, Disney was traded for Deep Throat.[51]

A place once known as a literal breeding ground seemed to lose its appeal with its “audience” in the 1970’s. Bob Hernandez, a projectionist during the seventies, explained that “the lovemaking isn’t like it used to be. Everyone has a camper or a friend with an apartment. They don’t need the drive-in for that anymore” (Segrave 151). This sentiment is echoed through Bob Maklames, owner of a drive-in in Allentown, Pennsylvania in the 1980’s: “the fear of premarital sex is gone…it’s a different world. And so, the drive-in doesn’t have the same function it had years ago.”

But to today’s generation, the drive-in represents a forgotten American culture, or specifically an age of values that has elapsed or fleeted. The drive-in theater, then, serves as valid proof for Andre Bazin’s idea that cinema, unlike the traditional arts, is principally mortal and subject to the dangers of technology[52]such as a coming age of television or home exhibition. It is fair to say that drive-ins were contained to the post-war years in wide consumer popularity, but to assume their importance on cinema was just as passing is incorrect, as will be examined in the following chapter dedicated to the drive-in’s lasting effect on spectatorship.


Chapter 3: The Audience and Spectator

A Changing Audience

It is important to recall that the American drive-in was conceptualized and initiated with a family audience in mind. As examined in Chapter One, Hollingshead intended the drive-in to appeal to Americans most specifically for the ease of accessibility to the family base. The drive-in initially did not charge entrance for children, obviously separating itself from the conventions of indoor theater practice. This was confirmed through an observation by Leo Rosen, an owner of the Mohawk Drive-In in Albany, New York: “drive-in patrons are like those for indoor houses (theaters), except there are more family groups” (qtd. in Segrave 42).  But this was not just any sort of family group. This audience (until 1955), as Steuwart Henderson Britt of Northwestern University concluded in a study, “generally had better jobs, higher income, more education, more children, more home ownership, more cars, more major appliances, and more conveniences” than the national average.[53] These audiences were of white suburban America, drove Cadillacs, and frequented the drive-in theater approximately 3.5 times a month.

But within twenty years, the typical drive-in patron warped from family to youth (and in end, one who, as advertising agent Leo Burnett observed, tended to be “a dissatisfied lonely blue-collar worker with financial worries” (qtd. in Segrave 146)). This was due in part to distributors, who felt they were missing out on a significant profit and generally changed to charging a high flat rate for outdoor theater exhibition—striking the drive-ins both in terms of profit and viewership. The large family was, as one might assume, affected by the rise in film prices through admission prices. From the 1960’s onward, drive-ins became an activity for the youth, young adults, and young couples, mostly without children.[54] The average patron was 24, and nearly sixty percent of reported attendees were male. Family groups, who once dominated the market, now made up less than 17 percent of viewership in the following decade. But to contribute this solely to the distributor would be placing too much blame. The fact was that conventions of American family culture had changed significantly after the baby boom. The children who once had visited the drive-ins with their parents and siblings continued as patrons, but now frequented the drive-ins in efforts of escaping the familial confines and/or finding a perhaps youthful and deviant solace in the “passion pit.”

One, then, might easily be able to acknowledge the existence of the drive-in theater in terms of its two “generations”: the family-oriented wholesome entertainment versus the passion pits of American youth. But despite the differences in audience, these drive-in generations definitely, if not anything else, share one common quality: that the actual exhibition of drive-in theater was seen primarily as the source of entertainment. This concept is examined briefly by Ina Rae Hark in Exhibition: the Film Reader through its introduction: “A significant question often posed during the history of exhibition is whether audiences go to the movies or to a movie” (2).  More clearly: is it necessarily the actual movie which draws an audience? In terms of the drive-in theater, the answer to that question is largely “no.” Quality of the films being shown, as well as their projection and exhibition, greatly support this answer. Writer Marguerite Cullman found that “most patrons admitted that the movies screened were older and less desirable than those to be found at more conveniently located indoor houses,” as well as that admission was as much or more than indoor theaters for comparable films.[55] The question of whether drive-in culture was more significant than the actual film is more of a reality than a possibility, especially in reference to the return to “the cinema of attractions” examined in Chapter Two regarding community involvement and spectacle. In the golden age of drive-ins, one news source in Austin, Texas acknowledged “at least for some individuals, drive-in attendance occurs regardless of interest in what film is being shown” (qtd. in Segrave 147). Because of this, the drive-in theater vastly identified itself as a separate attraction from the traditional movie theater in terms of spectatorship due largely in part to the distractions associated with the viewings.


A Theater of Distractions

Ansel M. Moore, writer for Boxoffice, was astonished to find that “people would prefer a “gaseous parking lot” over a comfortable seat in an air-conditioned indoor theater.” (qtd. in Segrave 37).  Despite the cynical tone, Moore’s critique was valid. Why would an American audience prefer to witness a film with inferior sound and screen technology (as presented in Chapter Two)? The most reasonable explanation should draw from the additives— including the pre-show “attractions” or concessions—that the drive-in theater offered to common viewers. Once again, the audience was comprised of typical American families, which one might reasonably assume did not contain the educated film viewer. In fact, most film critics and major American film magazines refused to honor the validity of the drive-in as a source of cinema. This was principally because of the quality of the pictures being shown in outdoor cinema, but also because the outing was motivated by the surrounding culture of the drive-in than the actual film (as the Austin source above recognizes).

Looking back on drive-in culture as a whole, one should be able to distinguish the drive-in theater’s emphasis on these attractions as distraction from the actual film. Thus, the film experience no longer recalled the classic viewing structure: one did not, say, sit stagnant in a seat, aware of the surrounding audience and aware of the relation between the film and self.  “We have come to recognize the multiple determinants of the film experience, and we doubt the ruling power of any single element, of the apparatus, for example, or even the text,” observes Dudley Andrew. “No longer can [Christian] Metz’s dream-screen be thought of as pure or essential. Metz assumed that no matter when or where a spectator sat, that spectator truly sat beside, or even within, the camera/projector. This was the essential place of the spectator.”[56] Drive-in theater conventions of viewing place the emphasis on “was” in the preceeding. With the merry-go-rounds, horseshoe grounds and concession exploitation covered in the last chapter, millions of viewers were being trained in a new way of visiting the movies.

And this training in viewing was more than just figurative. Audiences of drive-in theaters were actually coached on how to attend—fundamentally representing the shift into a different form of theater compared to indoor exhibition. A testimony from Frank Diaz, a 19-year-old usher in 1948 at a Gardena, California drive-in recalls this: “At the time, nobody knew what to expect…So we let people come in and see what it was all about. About 400 cars came through during the open house—we expected about 100—and we showed them how to drive in, pull up to a speaker, put it in the car and adjust the sound. Everyone was very excited. We knew we had a winner.” (qtd. in Segrave 40). Campaign slogan highlighting the differences between indoor and outdoor theater reminded the audience how they could act: “Smoke When You Please,” “Leave Your Girdle at Home,” “Save While You Spend,” “Eat While You Look,” “Knit While You Sit.”[57] These catchphrases advertised the viewing experience in conjunction with a distraction: eating, knitting, smoking. In fact, distractions were furthered to the point of absurdity. A Winter Haven, Florida drive-in advertised itself as a prime fishing spot where patrons could park their car and fish out of their window.[58] Even more preposterous venues included drive-in motels (in which rooms with large windows faced the screen) and airplane “fly-ins.”[59]

Leaving one’s “girdle at home” also represented the drive-in’s informality in comparison to the indoor theater. Ina Rae Hark, in Exhibition, The Film Reader, analyzes the classical indoor theater as existing near church practice, in that movie palaces created a ritual in viewing. This resonates in a quote from Joseph E. Dispenza (previously an AFI Education Programs Manager): “A large city movie theater was like a church. One first approached a small shrine, the ticket booth. Functioning like a confessional or baptismal font, the ticket booth was a place where one was made acceptable for the celluloid sacrifice” (qtd. in Hark 10). This, then, would make the viewing experience at a drive-in theater a sacrilege in comparison. There was no “celluloid sacrifice”: the film being shown was irrelevant to attendance.

Instead, drive-in films seemed to commit themselves to a degraded popular image by following the audience’s trends: for instance, industry mimicked sex in audience with the later allocation of sex on screen. And culture would respond accordingly. Drive-in theaters became the centers to rebel against the Production Code (which predominantly enforced moral standards and discouraged sexuality), while indoor theaters generally maintained a classical Hollywood approach. In fact, drive-in theaters were keen on the teen-pic success of the late 1950’s (from films such as The Wild One, Rebel Without a Cause and Blackboard Jungle), and worked with small distributors to obtain similar movies containing themes of the new emerging youth culture—rock n roll, juvenile delinquency, peer pressure, and new age slang.[60] In retrospect, however, the films acted less as an attraction for teenagers, and more as a development of teenage space. Like their parents, teens were not drawn for the film itself. Rather, the youth was able to congregate at the drive-in because the films propagated their ideals: they were an “audience who embraced the drive-in as a key site for engaging in rituals that nourished the sense of a distinct, autonomous ‘youth culture’” (Borie  136).

Hark sheds more detail on her idea by clearly recalling the “cinema of attractions”: “although drive-in theaters used the film as the specific draw to the site, the casual family-friendly environment, outdoor location and extras like full-service snack bars and playgrounds recalled the days of traveling film exhibitors screening their wares in fairground tents” (7). However, the cinema of attractions, or a cinema which “shocks, astonishes and directly addresses the film spectator” (Strauven 11), varies significantly from drive-in cinema, and for the following reason: the cinema of attractions sought to engage the viewer in the film by establishing itself as a spectacle (rather than a work of art), while the drive-in movie existed as a component of The Drive-In. It may be recognized, then, that the drive-in was not a cinema of attractions, but rather a cinema of distractions.


Spectatorship at the Drive-In

The drive-in, conceptually, was never set up in form to appreciate film specifically as art. The automobile itself should be considered a significant indication of disconnection from screen and spectator. Consider the levels of separation in contrast to the indoor theater: a glass windshield, poor sound quality, disinterest in the film, distraction in alternate activities, and the absence of a complete theater audience exist as signals of a self-awareness in relation to the film. In fact, the separation may have become so severe that the behavior portrayed in the film was less encouraged by the film (as 1950’s critics assumed) and more by the actual isolation within the automobile. The car provided a sense of isolation from the screen, but in this case, the isolation did not encourage the identification with the screen or, more specifically, a participation in scopophilia. Thus, isolation in an audience could be taken the complete opposite of what Laura Mulvey had anticipated.

The drive-in theater began to represent a source of privacy that indoor theaters could not offer. Privacy, however, encouraged an audience not to genuinely reflect upon what was being screened, but instead to become less actively engaged and more preoccupied with the surrounding distractions. Or, in the very least, to know that one was able to participate in the surrounding distractions, or that alternative options were available. This was completely unlike the previous standards for spectatorship. Spectatorship, as defined by Anne Friedberg, conventionally necessitated a dark room with projected luminous images, an immobile spectator, a single viewing, noninteractive relation viewer and image, the framed image, and a flat screen surface.[61] Friedberg’s idea seems to be a summation of Jean-Louis Baudry’s classification of the spectator in his essay “Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus”: “No doubt the darkened room and the screen bordered with black like a letter of

condolence already present privileged conditions of effectiveness – no exchange, no circulation, no communication with any outside. Projection and reflection take place in a closed space, and those who remain there, whether they know it or not (but they do not), find themselves chained, captured, or captivated.” [62]

The drive-in theater seems to break all of these guidelines on spectatorship in one way or another. The dark room was replaced with an open atmosphere, which in some cases was not yet dark; the spectator was always mobile, represented most primarily through seating in a vehicle of transportation; viewing experience was different for each patron due to distractions, and thus, the single viewing standard could not be accurate for all audience members. According to Friedberg, noninteractivity is a corollary to the immobility, and hence voided. Though both the framed image and flat screen surface are arguably supported through the drive-in theater, one should acknowledge the far inferior quality which drive-in exhibition produced. Without these areas fulfilled, classical spectatorship is negated in the case of the drive-in. In fact, this style of spectatorship might fall more under Baudry’s classification of negative influences from the screen, where the spectator is brought abruptly back to discontinuity – that is, to the body, to the technical apparatus which he had forgotten” through distractions such as a projector breakdown. And as Lee Borie explains precisely in “Wild Ones: Containment Culture and 1950’s Youth Rebellion,” “drive-in spectator’s distance – both physical distance from the screen… and the distractions discouraging the spectator’s immersion in the screen image – meant the spectator could scarcely forget the staged spectacle and the movie-making apparatus that produced it.”[63]

Perhaps most useful in Friedman’s examination on spectatorship is her hypothesis that viewing context has changed significantly due to television/home theater technology. At one point, she acknowledges the differences between cinema spectatorship and televisual spectatorship, in which “one goes to a specific film, but one watches (not a specific program but the apparatus) television.”[64] More specifically, she argues that television is able to offer a more personalized message to an individual receiver, where as “cinematic technology offer[s] a diverse set of origins and a collective system of reception.” But are these qualities not equally found in the drive-in theater, a predecessor to television and component of the cinema?

Though Friedman’s argument is not incomplete, she does not take into account the unconventionality of the drive-in theater in reference to cinema’s history. Drive-in theaters challenged the conventions of classical cinematic spectatorship before television under the same conditions. In fact, drive-in theater standards of viewing are simulated in modern society’s approach to the home theater, and now even the indoor theater. The home theater today provides the same sense of isolation as did the automobile, but now the concession stand is now located more conveniently in the kitchen. Children can play board games or Barbies while parents sit on the couch next to them watching a film in the comfort of their own house. The home theater recreates the conventions of family togetherness, as well as comes complete with a set of distractions that the drive-in theater equally offered. Overall, such distraction from the actual film and more focus on the surrounding community personalized the viewing experience on an individual’s level while simultaneously decreasing the importance of one’s interaction with the screen.

It is possible that the viewer’s lack of relation with the film represents the progression—or at least the transformation— of the American audience. The film, by way of the drive-in, became a backdrop to the common American’s existence; each patron became, within each car, for the first time in cinema history, the real subject at the movies. Emphasis was taken from the film and placed on the community or the social aspect motivated through cinema. And perhaps this was the first real occurrence since the “cinema of attractions” that film could be viewed legitimately not for any artistic worth but for its entertainment value. This is not to say that film became a less valid form of art or expression: rather, the drive-in’s affect on spectatorship, which might in other ways be mistaken as indifference to the film, simply indicates the integration of cinema into the daily American life.

To elaborate: it is quite difficult for a modern audience to imagine life without cinema. Parents sit their children in front of televisions to watch Disney movies as a cheaper form of effective child care. Today, the modern audience is unlike the primitive audiences of cinema, who, for instance, responded to the Lumière Brother’s film Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (among others) in complete panic for fear that the approaching train would jump out of the screen.[65] No: despite a lack of acuteness to the details of the film being played idly in the living room as the common American washes dishes, does homework, or even naps, society can still largely respect the actual film, as a more evolved and educated audience. Cinema is no longer shocking or inaccessible to audiences; it is ordinary and regular in daily life.

It seems only natural, then, that the drive-in theater would fade. Integration of film as daily activity would of course be more convenient if the theater was located at home. Home theater entertainment in America was popularized in the late 1970’s, inversely complimenting the fading market of drive-in theater. By the 1980’s, this form of home cinema was widely available and affordable, and it was possible for the modern family to again, as found in the golden years of the drive-in, relate through use of film.


Affect on Theories of Spectatorship

As previously noted, such distinct changes in the environment of cinema in terms of a heightened level of distraction largely influenced the ways that films were seen at drive-ins. But in a wider spectrum, drive-ins represented a threat to the classical procedures of viewing at indoor theaters. Lee Borie again excels this concept of distracted cinema in observing that “the distracting environment of the drive-in disrupted the flow of the narrative” (170), in which spectators would view the film not as a consecutive narrative, but rather as “selected episodes” (35).

Distraction from narrative comes only as one form of influence on spectatorship or as contradiction to previous theories (such as Baudry’s essay on the apparatus, as examined). More precisely, the spectator’s role at the drive-in helps to negate, or at least bring into question, a section of film theory. Influential psychoanalysis theories—specifically the theories of Baudry and Metz (and indirectly, Lacan)—assume the viewer remains passive throughout the film. They highlight the idea that the film acts upon the viewer, drawing them in subconsciously. Metz assumes the spectator has a “pure capacity of seeing” as he becomes a subject himself, while Baudry describes the viewer as, again, a “chained, captured or captivated” subject. Laura Mulvey, who also uses Lacanian mirror theory in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” argues that the darkness of a theater creates a sense of separation, which subsequently encourages voyeurism as well as a repressed desire to act upon the performer.

In Lacanian mirror stage theory, it is essential for the infant to recognize himself in the mirror in order to form his ego, which exists as an unattainable perfect form of self. The mirror stage seems to apply well to film for the fact that the mirror can be substituted by the screen, the infant replaced with the spectator, and the ego represented by the characters on screen. However, this also requires the spectator to let the film act upon him. Because of this, these psychoanalytic theories are problematic if applied to drive-in theater audiences: they do not take into account a viewer who is too distracted to be passive.

Theorizing film in the context of the drive-in theater may then be more effective within historical and cultural contexts, rather than “assuming a universal relation between text and spectator” (Borrie 147) as psychoanalysists do. In fact, it should be noted that drive-in spectatorship was highly influenced by a cultural mode not fully enacted on the indoor theater audience: this was consumerism. Concession sales, as examined in previous chapters, assisted in legitimizing the attraction of the drive-in, but were achieved only through an aggressive form of marketing and advertising.

Advertising as a norm reached full swing in the 1950’s. Because of the expansion of American cities and creation of suburbia, one-lane roads were being replaced with four to six lane superhighways across the nation. In 1956, in the midst of Cold War anxiety, the American federal government passed the Interstate System Act for the quick development of these highways in order to allow swift and efficient military travel if necessary. Billboards were drastically implemented on the roadsides and served as reminders of both the necessity to support American-made products, as well as to enforce proper American ideals. For instance, plentiful Clorox billboard ads reminded families not just of cleanliness, but of purity and sanity—sentiments of the McCarthy era.[66]

So, it may be worthwhile to point out the apparent physical similarity between the billboard and drive-in screen. Were they much different in function? Both sought to attract the family contained within the automobile; both were viewed as a series of images (rather than a coherent narrative form); both were located conveniently roadside for the traveler to see. More significantly, both intended to sell a function not contained directly within the product. For the billboard, this was the ideology of American culture, such as purity for Clorox, or more specifically as explained by Salamone, “social and cultural hierarchies, approved gender relationships, and adherence to the government and opposition to the Red Menace” (70) in the fifties. Drive-ins could encourage similar ideologies of the culture, such as family togetherness, which of course did not have to be encouraged by the film being screened. Considering the also similar mobilized view[67] that the drive-in required of the spectator, this form of exhibition may have furthered the American culture’s window-shopping consumerism.



 This last decade seems to have brought about a massive amount of drive-in fervor. News articles from NPR, BBC, Time Magazine, New York Times, USA Weekend, as well as local sourced newspapers (The Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle) and independent film sources (such as Slash Film) have within the last five years dedicated themselves to remembering the influence of the drive-in theater, both historically and personally. Why the sudden tribute? For one possibility, 2008 marked the 75th anniversary of the drive-in theater. But more probable, the unexpected insurgence of popularity, though not directly stated, may be due to the drive-in’s near disappearance in these years. Since the 1970’s, price of real estate has been a chief motive for closure (noted officially by the United States Department of Commerce in 1976),[68] and profitability of these areas of land generally offer more income than the theater itself.

It can be said without hesitation that the drive-in movie theater as an exhibition source is currently dead—diminished by indoor multiplexes, home theater entertainment, changing family ideals, and financial complications (such as insurance or film pricing or as mentioned, real estate pricing). However, a handful of these articles that pay tribute encourage their readers in the possibility of a revival. Is it really possible for the drive-in theater to make a comeback?

From the material presented in the previous chapters, it should be apparent that the drive-in was a product of its time. The once-prominent baby-boom generation of family values and automobile reliance (and even obsession) no longer exists; the Cold War culture of repression, where drive-ins once acted as a heterotopia for teens, has disappeared as well. Simply put, the drive-in movie theater’s functions have fleeted. But more tangibly, home entertainment makes it impossible for the similar source of exhibition (as well as practices of spectatorship) to again flourish outside the home setting— especially in regards to superior technology, availability and most importantly, convenience. Drive-in theaters now exist, as should, only as a novelty for their customers.

This is not to say that their influence cannot continue onto other various sources of film entertainment. Already American culture has experienced a variety of exhibition deviants reminiscent of the drive-in theater. For instance, as of 2003, a practice known as guerrilla drive-ins, or “MobMov” (mobile movies), have gained somewhat of a cult following, in which small groups utilize local sites as a screen for projection. The MobMov manifesto reads: “As a mobmov driver, you assemble the kit, decide on the movies, and announce your showings to friends and the community at large. Then everyone assembles in a dark place with a big wall, and you watch a movie. It’s a new technological twist to a nostalgic idea.”[69] The easy accessibility to a projector and source of sound system as well as the personal choice of the film being screened represent a hybrid, recalling both the influence of the drive-in and the integration of home theater conventions. But more pertinent in current American society is the transformation of the mobilized view, which now exists not outside of the car but in it. A majority of automobile manufacturers customarily offer DVD players paired with LCDs inside of the car, viewable for the passengers and sometimes even the driver. Cadillac vehicles have just begun implementing accessibility to YouTube.[70] Spectatorship that once existed inside the automobile which allowed for the development of home entertainment has ironically transitioned to a spectatorship of home entertainment inside the automobile.

If the influence of the American drive-in theater does not seem significant enough in retrospect, these effects on present-day development in exhibition should communicate the proof. The level of distraction now incorporated into cinema is the clearest sign of its legacy—or in simpler terms, its prevailing contribution from the past extending into the present. However, whether or not this is a welcome contribution is quite arguable, as in most cases such change represents a perversion of the cinematic qualities with which art tends to identify.

At its most debased level, the drive-in theater remains highly indicative of the postwar culture, as well of the transitional period in film history between Classical Hollywood, the rise of the independent studio, and the introduction and growth of television. It might be most accurate, then, to consider the drive-in theater as an undeniably vital fact of American social and cinematic history, rather than dwelling on the validity of its exhibition in present time. More precisely: the drive-in should be revered as a detail of the past and not as a possibility of the future; it should be remembered for its legacy rather than forgotten during its current state decline.

The drive-in is irrefutably dead in exhibition, but it is a death that comes naturally with the progression of both societal values and technological transitions. American culture should not despair in this loss; such a loss is merely experienced in physicality. Rather, the drive-in can and should continue to live, but only in its legacy.  The only acceptable plan of action for American society in regards to the drive-in, then, is this: to let it fade as the times will have it, to remember it nostalgically, to realize and analyze its link in the evolution of cinema, and finally— at the very least— to grant it a modest mention in modern film history textbooks in order to ensure that its legacy be preserved for future generations.


Works Cited

 Allen, Leslie J. “Cadillac to offer Wi-Fi, bring YouTube to cars.” Automotive News. 19 March 2009. 20 March 2009 < ANA05/903189966/1018>.

Austin, Bruce A. Current Research in Film Audiences, Economics, and Law; Volume 1 (Current Research in Film). Vol. 1. Grand Rapids: Ablex, 1985.

Austin, Bruce A. Portrait of a Contemporary Drive-in Movie Theater Audience. Rochester Institute of Technology. 23 March 2009< content_storage_01/0000019b/80/2d/f0/b0.pdf>.

Borrie, Lee. “Wild Ones: Containment Culture and 1950s Youth Rebellion.” Thesis. University of Canterbury, 2007. 17 March 2009 <;.

Bottomore, Stephen. “The Panicking Audience?: Early Cinema and the ‘Train Effect'” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 19 (1999): 177-79.

Baudry, Jean-Louis. “Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus” in Philip Rosen (ed.), Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Theory Reader. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.

“Camden Drive-In.” Cinema Treasures. 04 January 2009 <; 

Cook, David A. History of Narrative Film. New York: W.W. Norton, 2004.

“The Depression and Industry Finances.” Film Reference. 04 January 2009 <;.

Friedberg, Anne. “Urban mobility and cinematic visuality: the screens of Los Angeles—endless cinema or private telematics.” Journal of Visual Culture 1 (2002): 183-204.

Hannigan, John. Fantasy City: Pleasure and Profit in the Postmodern Metropolis. London: Routledge, 1998.

Hark, Ina Rae, ed. Exhibition: The Film Reader. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Kennedy, Bryan. “The MobMov Manifesto.” MobMov: modern drive-in and mobile movie outdoor cinema. 25 Oct. 2005. MobMov: The Drive-in that Drives. 15 Mar. 2009 <;.

Luther, Rodney. “Drive-in Theaters: Rags to Riches in Five Years.” Hollywood Quarterly 5 (1951): 401-11.

 McKeon, Elizabeth. Cinema Under the Stars: America’s Love Affair with the Drive-in Movie Theater. Nashville, TN: Cumberland House, 1998.

 Melnick, Ross. Cinema Treasures: a New Look at Classic Movie Theaters. St. Paul, MN: MBI, 2004.

 Rhodes, Gary Don. Horror at the Drive-in Essays in Popular Americana. Boston: McFarland & Company, 2007.

 Salamone, Frank A. Popular Culture in the Fifties. Lanham, MD: University P of America, 2001.

 Sanders, Don. American Drive-in Movie Theater. Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International, 1997.

 Segrave, Kerry. Drive-in Theaters A History from Their Inception in 1933. Boston: McFarland & Company, 1992.

 “Servicemen’s Readjustment Act (1944).” 04 February 2009 <;.

 Strauven, Wanda. The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded (Film Culture in Transition). New York: Amsterdam UP, 2007.

 “Vital Statistics of the United States 1900-84.” National Center for Health Statistics. 13 January 2009 <;.



[1] “The Depression and Industry Finances.” Film Reference. 04 January 2009 <;.

[2] Bruce A. Austin, Current Research in Film Audiences, Economics, and Law; Volume 1 (Grand Rapids: Ablex, 1985) 63;

   Kerry Segrave, Drive-In Theaters: A History from Their Inception in 1933 (Boston: McFarland, 1992)  4.

[3] Segrave 7.

[4] “Camden Drive-In.” Cinema Treasures. 04 Jan. 2009 <;.

[5] Elizabeth McKeon, Cinema under the Stars: America’s Love Affair with the Drive-in Movie Theater (Nashville: Cumberland House, 1998) 27.

[6] Rodney Luther, “Drive-in Theaters: Rags to Riches in Five Years.” Hollywood Quarterly 5 (1951): 404.

[7] John Hannigan, Fantasy City: Pleasure and Profit in the Postmodern Metropolis (London: Routledge, 1998) 36-37.

[8] McKeon 28.

[9] Segrave 30.

[10] Segrave 33.

[11] “Servicemen’s Readjustment Act (1944).” 06 February 2009 <;.

[12] Ross Melnick, Cinema Treasures: a New Look at Classic Movie Theaters (St. Paul, MN: MBI, 2004) 119.

[13] “Servicemen’s Readjustment Act (1944).”

[14] Ina Rae Hark, ed. Exhibition: The Film Reader (New York: Routledge, 2002) 123.

[15] Segrave 77.

[16] “Vital Statistics of the United States 1900-84.” National Center for Health Statistics. 13 January 2009 <;.

[17] Segrave 41.

[18] Segrave 77.

[19] David Cook, History of Narrative Film (New York: W.W. Norton, 2004): 428-429.

[20] Don Sanders, American Drive-in Movie Theater (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International, 1997) 112.

[21] Segrave 187.

[22] Sanders 112.

[23] Hark 124.

[24] McKeon 92.

[25] Segrave 70.

[26] Segrave 119.

[27] Segrave 116.

[28] Segrave 117.

[29] Luther 402; Sanders, 38;Segrave 124.

[30] Sanders 133; Segrave 194.

[31] Sanders 41; Segrave 40.

[32] Segrave 46.

[33] Segrave 96.

[34] Segrave 91.

[35] Hark 15; Sanders 79.

[36] Luther 401.

[37] Sanders 80; Segrave 93.

[38] Hark 15.

[39] Segrave 138.

[40] Segrave 136.

[41] Segrave 128.

[42] Sanders 105; Segrave 128.

[43] Sanders 109; Segrave 130.

[44] Sanders 42; Segrave 119.

[45] Segrave 144.

[46] Luther 409.

[47] Sanders 41, 85-87; Segrave 43-45; Luther 407.

[48] Segrave 148.

[49] Segrave 150.

[50] Sanders 129; Segrave 163.

[51] Sanders 129.

[52] Hark 165.

[53] Segrave 146.

[54] McKeon 79.

[55] Segrave 71-72.

[56] Hark 162.

[57] Segrave 88.

[58] Segrave 82.

[59] Segrave 102.

[60] Lee Borrie, Wild Ones: Containment Culture and 1950s Youth Rebellion. Thesis. (University of Canterbury,     2007), 17 March 2009 <;, 132.

[61] Hark 174.

[62] Jean-Louis Baudry, “Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus” in Philip Rosen (ed.),Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Theory Reader (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986),p.293-4

[63] Borrie 148.

[64] Hark 178.

[65] Stephen Bottomore, “The Panicking Audience?: Early Cinema and the ‘Train Effect,'” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 19 (1999): 177.

[66] Salamone 67-68.

[67] Anne Friedberg, “Urban mobility and cinematic visuality: the screens of Los Angeles—endless cinema or private telematics,” Journal of Visual Culture 1 (2002): 186.

[68] Bruce A. Austin, Portrait of a Contemporary Drive-in Movie Theater Audience, Rochester Institute of Technology. 23 Mar. 2009      <;.

[69] Bryan Kennedy.,”The MobMov Manifesto.” MobMov: The Drive-in that Drives, 25 October 2005. <;.

[70] Leslie J. Allen, “Cadillac to offer Wi-Fi, bring YouTube to cars.” Automotive News, 19 March 2009  <;.


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