For the price of a one-month Netflix subscription, you can roll out a mattress in the back of your pickup truck and enjoy a screening of two back-to-back, big-screen movies while the stars sparkle overhead.
Sound like the latest in virtual reality cinema? Idyllic evenings such as these at the local drive-in theater used to be the norm. Now, drive-ins feel depressingly out of place. Flash headlines will have you believe that the drive-in theater industry is in its death throes, as numbers are rattled off like a ticking bomb: There Are Now Just 357 American Drive-In Theaters, pronounced The Awl in 2013. Indeed, the drop-off in drive-ins operating across the United States (over 4,000 in the 1950s) is disconcerting. As they say in stat-nerd circles, numbers don’t lie. But they don’t tell the entire story, either.
Those intimately connected to the drive-in theater industry are quick to paint a more hopeful picture. Glenn Bianchi, president of Modern Development Co. and owner of the Paramount Drive-In in Paramount, California, felt confident enough in the current climate to re-open his theater in 2014 following a “22 year intermission.” In and around Los Angeles County, the drive-ins that remain attract a steady stream of regular visitors as well as one-time tourists looking to strike an item off their bucket lists.
Most importantly, drive-in theaters are not competing with walk-in theaters for the attention of movie-goers; drive-ins offer a qualitatively different experience. At Paramount, Montclair’s Mission Tiki Drive-In and West Covina’s Vineland Drive-In there are dedicated projectionists, business owners, and theater-goers who still believe in the drive-in— for however long they might be around
The first drive-in was constructed in 1932 by automobile mechanic Richard Hollingshead. Hollingshead experimented by draping a bedsheet between two trees, propping up some speakers, and settling a Kodak projector on the hood of his car. Thus, the confluence of the automobile industry and the motion picture industry was born.
Buoyed by that unflappable American optimism and, legend has it, a desire to create a more comfortable film-going experience for this mother, Hollingshead invested $30,000 (about $525,000 in today’s market) and opened the nation’s first drive-in movie theater on June 6, 1933, in Camden, New Jersey. He called it— rather more aptly— the “Park-In Theater.”
Hollingshead’s inaugural event was quite a spectacle, and excited motorists drove in from 20 or 30 states to fill up the 500 parking spots facing the big screen.
The drive-in experience itself has largely withstood the test of time, though the concept of watching a big-screen film from the car has gone through a couple modifications: many modern drive-in visitors park facing away from the screen, morphing hatchback trunks into makeshift loveseats, while others simply whip out lawn chairs and lounge alongside their vehicles. As usual, drive-ins are well stocked with jumper cables for the occasional dead car battery; the film’s audio is streamed over a local FM radio station, so the car battery needs to be on in order to hear the film. However, veteran visitors know better than to leave the battery running for the entirety of the evening. Hint for the newbies: Turn on your car’s ignition every so often to allow the battery to recharge.
During the 40s and 50s, drive-in theaters were like Starbucks: you couldn’t drive a block in your 1956 Oldsmobile without hitting one. Glenn Bianchi’s father, Joseph, moved from Brooklyn in 1947 to be closer to the film industry, promptly bought a 25-acre cornfield in Paramount, and installed one of the first drive-in theaters in Southern California. The Vineland Drive-In opened in 1952, and Mission Tiki opened in 1956. Throughout the 60s and 70s, drive-in theaters were the height of cool, and a memorable scene from the musical dramedy Grease (1978) cemented the drive-in’s status as a cornerstone of popular culture.
Hollywood was booming and Americans loved their automobiles. It was the golden age of the American Drive-In. What could go wrong?
Left: California’s first drive-in theater, the Pico Drive-In in West Los Angeles, opened on September 9, 1934. (Source: USC Digital Library.) Right: Vineland Drive-In Theater opened in April of 1952 in West Covina and is still in operation.
For the majority of now-defunct drive-ins, ‘twas simple economics that killed the beast. California property values skyrocketed in the 80s and 90s, and the costs of operating a couple of projectors on a 25-acre plot of land simply did not outweigh the benefits. Many drive-in owners wound up selling their land for upwards of $20 million. The defunct Rosecrans Drive-In, down the road from Bianchi’s Paramount Drive-In, is an immense stretch of land that now houses a Walmart SuperCenter.
Yet drive-ins such as Mission Tiki, Vineland and Paramount manage to survive— and even, some would say, thrive.
Drive-ins have become especially popular for young families. Parents reluctant to break the bank for a family movie outing can get a good deal at drive-in theaters like Vineland, Mission Tiki, and Paramount, where adult tickets are $9, tickets for kids aged 5-9 range from $1 to $3, and kids under five get in for free.
In addition to the cost factor, parents can bring their (noisy, sticky, rambunctious) children to the movies without the fear of bothering fellow audience members; at the drive-in, every car acts like a private booth. Even texting is allowed!
Summers at the drive-ins are packed with kids off from school. Paramount Drive-In has sold out its 475-car capacity “many times” over the course of its three-year revival, management revealed. Veronica Enriquez, operations manager at Vineland, says that on Saturdays in June, the line of cars to get into the lots can stretch all the way to the 605. And Doug Davis, projectionist at Mission Tiki, says that attendance has gone up “exponentially” in recent years, especially since the theater made the switch from film to digital projectors in 2006. (Vineland made the shift in 2013, and two weeks later, all four screens sold out.)
This tech shift has proved to be the tipping point for drive-ins across the nation. Converting to digital or investing in a new projector costs between $50,000 and $150,000 each, a staggering sum for drive-in owners. Drive-ins— a subset of theaters already struggling to find their place in the shifting digital landscape— have faced a starkly Darwinian choice: adapt, or die.
For drive-ins that could afford the overhaul, switching to digital projects proved to be a shot in the arm. “I have been doing this since 1980,” says Davis, “and I have never been as impressed as I was when we switched to digital here [at Mission Tiki].”
Walk-ins project films across the length of the theater, but drive-ins have the added hurdle of accounting for the much longer “throw distance” between the projector and the screen— an entire parking lot as opposed to a couple dozen rows of seats. This longer throw distance, coupled with the presence of outdoor, ambient light, dilutes the overall quality of the image onscreen. However, the recent adoption of digital film over 35mm film has dramatically improved the quality of drive-in movies.
The sound quality, too, has undergone a major overhaul over the years: speakers mounted alongside the screen gave way to individual, mini-speakers draped over side-view mirrors, which in turn yielded FM radio broadcasts. This set-up allows for an intimate, private experience— you can watch and listen from within the confines of your car— or a communal one— you can roll down the windows, crank up the volume, and immerse in the symphony-like soundtrack, as the audio emanating from each car’s radio builds on that of its neighbor to create a truly surround-sound atmosphere.
For many theater-goers, the drive-in represents a symbol of their past, a referent of the halcyon days of childhood that nostalgia throws into such sharp relief. It is the height of irony, therefore, that a niche industry subsisting on the romanticism of the past has been seemingly revived by a concentrated injection of modernity. But perhaps that is precisely the nature of nostalgia: it enables us to honor the past by situating it in the present.
Still, the past has a way of drawing people back. Paramount owner Glenn Bianchi ruminates fondly over his drive-in visits while growing up in Huntington Beach and Fullerton. “It was something to do when you were underage and couldn’t get into the nightclubs,” he chuckles. “Between the ages of 16 and 20, you either went to the bowling alley or you went to the drive-in.” When he had young children, his family established a tradition of their own: “Every Friday night, I’d come home from work, and we’d back up the car or the motor home and take it to the local drive-in.”
Juan Gonzalez, Vineland’s operational manager alongside Enriquez, says that guests reminisce about their past visits to the drive-in all the time. He loves it when people tell him, “I used to come to this theater when I was a kid, and now I’m here with my grandson to show him what it is to see movies under the stars.” Drive-in visitors are focused on capturing romance old and new: an elderly couple that celebrated their first date at Vineland recently returned for a trip down memory lane, while a much younger pair contacted Gonzalez about staging their actual wedding ceremony at the venue.
However, nostalgia alone is not enough to counterbalance practical reality. Because nostalgia is a double-edged sword: the joy of reliving the past is tainted with the regret that these times are long gone.
Ventura’s 101 Drive-In is now a shopping center. So is Huntington Beach’s Warner Drive-In. Fountain Valley Drive-In: shopping center. Anaheim Drive-In: shopping center. The Sepulveda Drive-In now hosts a gym. Highway 39? Now an Orange County Walmart.
Yet the Southern California drive-in still manages to defy any single narrative. The market numbers state that the industry is waning, but some — like Mission Tiki projectionist Davis — insist that attendance is better than ever. Drive-ins attract locals as well as faraway tourists. Children who remember when their parents took them are now taking children of their own. The drive-in lots look nearly abandoned on a Sunday night in November, but a Saturday night in June cars will be turned away for lack of space.
Drive-ins aren’t down for the count just yet. If the switch to digital projectors worked so well, perhaps social media can give the industry yet another millennial boost, as visibility on Facebook and Twitter help drive-ins reach new audiences. Campaigns like Honda’s 2013 “Project Drive-In” have rescued some smaller, family-owned drive-ins such as the Auto Vue Drive-In in Ohio, the Cherry Bowl Drive-In in Michigan and the Graham Drive-In in Texas from the brink of extinction by raising money for digital film projectors. Think “Extreme Makeover: Drive-In Edition,” complete with the obligatory, heartfelt waterworks.
Bianchi sighs deeply when I ask him where he thinks the drive-in industry will be in a couple of decades, revealing his ambivalence on the state of the industry. But when prompted by the inevitable follow-up question— why not sell yours?— his response is all business: “Right now we own the land, and the drive-in makes money.” Simple economics may have spelled the end of many drive-ins, but perhaps simple economics can also keep the remaining few afloat.
Hearing Bianchi reminisce over his father’s love for the drive-in theater over half a century ago, it’s clear there’s something else at stake here as well. Doug Davis, whose father and grandfather were projectionists like him, also feels the tug of the past while surging forward into the digital age. And on a warm November night in 2015 at the Mission Tiki Drive-In, I witnessed two young boys cozy up next to their parents in the back of the family pick-up truck, making memories that they, too, will hopefully share — and experience — with their own children one day.
Photography and text by Allyson Gronowitz.