Come On, Let’s Go!

We Americans love our cars; they’re extensions of our personalities, displaying our wealth, status or our age. Even more, are the destinations we choose to drive our cars, long before these classics cars became classics, they had their haunts. Car shows, what’s a car show? We drove these cars, everyday. They took us to work or to school and on the weekend, they took us to the Drive-in! It was a great place to take a date and if you didn’t have a date, a good place to find one. Only in America, would we invent a theater where we could take our car to the movies.

It was way back in 1933, when Richard M. Hollingshead Jr. of Camden NJ opened the first Drive-in Theater. In less than ten years, Drive-in’s were a phenomenon nation-wide.

In 1941, RCA patented the once famous, wired speaker box on a pole, allowing patrons to choose their own individual speaker volume. Now, I realize that some of you have no idea what I’m prattling on about, but imagine, you’ve just pulled into your spot at the Drive in. You’ve lowered your window and taken the speaker box off the poll, only to discover, no sound! Only then, do you begin to notice the dance going on all around you, as cars seek out the best working speakers, you begin to understand why that great space was empty.

The Drive-in was a great way to take the family to the movies, many is the time as a kid when the family would load up in Dad’s 59 Chrysler and head for the Drive-in. But first, we’d dust off the cooler, dump in a few ice trays (see ancient definitions) mom would make some sandwiches and we’d stop for chips, dip and soft drinks and head for the Drive-in.

On a Friday or Saturday night, there would most always be a line waiting to get in, sometimes extending back to the highway. I’d sit in the backseat, watching the brightly lit marquee, waiting patiently, for a chance to play on the playground! Arriving near dusk, once in our parking spot, we’d be allowed to head for the playground beneath the screen. The rules were quite simple; we were to return to the car, before the first cartoon was over.

The Drive-in owners had it down to a science; the playground was to give the adults some peace and quiet, while hopefully, tiring the kids out. They would play a family film first and then a romance or at the very least, a more mature second feature .

Between the features, there would be the ads for the great foods in the snack bar, which normally wasn’t that good. But dad would give us a quarter and off we’d go, with mom admonishing us to “Watch the traffic!”

The snack bar was usually a cinder block building painted white and adorned with yellow bug lights. Entering from the darkness, always made the room appear to be very bright. Crowds would be waiting for hot dogs or hamburgers, and once they’d received their order, the fun would begin. They would exit from that brightly room into the pitch black darkness, carrying four hamburgers, two hot dogs, a bag of popcorn, a snickers bar, an ice cream sandwich and four Cokes in a thin cardboard tray,  and do it, while totally blind. It wasn’t at all uncommon to see trays which had failed or their carrier’s who’d stumbled in the darkness or those lost, still carrying their tray with melted ice cream and cold hot dogs, almost certain their car was on this row.

At their zenith, there were over 4,000 Drive-ins across the country and the big Hollywood studios had a love /hate relationship with the Drive-in. The studios enjoyed the revenue generated from the Drive-ins, but Drive-ins were the poor relations of the theater business. Because of this, the studios were hesitant to put their blockbusters into drive-ins forcing them to show second-run features. In response, American International Pictures was formed in 1954. The idea was to produce low-budget films, exclusively for the Drive-in audience.

At first, American International struggled to find their niche when they began to understand the market. With more adults watching Television; their market was in the increasing numbers of teenagers with cars. The AIP publicity department called it “The Peter Pan Syndrome”

a) a younger child will watch anything an older child will watch;

b) an older child will not watch anything a younger child will watch;

c) a girl will watch anything a boy will watch

d) a boy will not watch anything a girl will watch;

therefore-to catch your greatest audience you zero in on the 19-year old male.

This would seem to explain such AIP features as, High School Hellcats, Reform School Girl and that classic, Girls in Prison. This was just the beginning, because the next genre for AIP became the automobile itself. Was this life imitating art or art imitating life, going to the Drive-in in our cars to watch films about people in their cars?

Road Racers, Drag Strip Girl and the immortal classic, The Ghost of Drag Strip Hollow, the sequel to Hot Rod Gang. American International also gave us monster movies, I was a Teenage Werewolf and I was a Teenage Frankenstein and The Man with X-ray Eyes. American International had discovered something, in the era before Netflix, DVD’s or rentals. They'd discovered teenagers went to the drive-in primarily to be alone and unsupervised. The features were almost secondary, but still, they stuck to the formula, 1963’s Beach Party with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. 

Whatever the trend or craze, American International Pictures was there, Hippies, surfers, bikers, you name it.

Motorcycle Gang (1957)

The Hand (1961)

Assignment Outer Space (1961)

DR. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965)

Blacula (1973)

Hell up in Harlem (1973)

Empire of the Ants (1977)

Some of the films were pretty good, others…oh well, we still had a good time at the Drive-in. American International called themselves the Woolworth’s of film making, but Woolworth’s was being priced out of the market, by rising production costs. The Drive-in’s themselves, once located on the edge of town, now found themselves sitting on prime Real Estate and many sold out, while the getting was good. Color Television and the VCR helped to end the era of the Drive-in Movie Theater and yet, even today, some survive.

Those awful speakers on the pole now replaced with a low powered FM signal broadcast into your car. Many of the surviving Drive-ins have digital projectors and as always, they have warm summer nights under the stars, bring a lawn chair or spread out a blanket in the back of the SUV, it’s still fun. It was always fun, only now it’s a rarity.