A drive-in theater is a form of cinema structure consisting of a large outdoor screen, a projection booth, a concession stand and a large parking area for automobiles. The screen can be as simple as a wall that is painted white, or it can be a complex steel truss structure with a complex finish. Within this enclosed area, customers can view movies from the privacy and comfort of their cars. Some drive-in theater managers added children's playgrounds between the screen and the first row of cars. Others even went as far as adding miniature railroads, merry-go-rounds and miniature golf courses. Concrete patios for lawn chairs were available at some drive-in theaters, as well as indoor seating in the snack bar.
Originally, audio was provided by speakers on the screen and later by an individual speaker hung from the window of each car, which would be attached by a wire. This system was superseded by the more economical and less damage-prone method of broadcasting the soundtrack at a low output power on AM or FM Radio to be picked up by a car radio. This method also allows the soundtrack to be picked up in stereo by the audience on an often high fidelity stereo installed in the car instead of monaural through a simple speaker.
Hollingshead's drive-in opened in New Jersey June 6, 1933 on Admiral Wilson Boulevard at the Airport Circle in Pennsauken, a short distance from Cooper River Park. He advertised his drive-in theater by saying, "The whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are". It only operated for three years, but during that time the concept caught on in other states. The April 15. 1934, opening of Shankweiler's Auto Park in Orefield, Pennsylvania, was followed by Galveston's Drive-In Short Reel Theater (July 5, 1934), the Pico in Los Angeles (September 9, 1934) and the Weymouth Drive-In Theatre in Weymouth, Massachusetts (May 6, 1936). In 1937, three more opened in Ohio, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, with another 12 during 1938 and 1939 in California, Florida, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Texas and Virginia. Michigan's first drive-in was the Eastside, which opened May 26, 1938 in Harper Woods near Detroit.
One of the reasons that drive-ins were so popular with families is that it allowed the entire family to go to the movies and not have to hire a babysitter or worry that their children would disrupt the entire audience. This became a modern pastime; now the entire family for a per-person cost, the same as a sit down theater, could come and enjoy a movie in the privacy of their own vehicles, children and all. Before the war, there had been approximately 100 major drive-ins nationwide; the drive-in craze began to build very strongly following the end of the Second World War. Many GIs had traveled the country and seen the new and unusual things it had to offer. The drive-in was no exception. Enterprising businessmen realized that this segment of the population could be tapped and spend some of their earnings to enjoy themselves, a date, or an evening with the family.
In the 1950s, the greater privacy afforded to patrons gave drive-ins a reputation as immoral, and they were labeled "passion pits" in the media. During the 1970s, some drive-ins changed from family fare to exploitation films. Also, during the 1970s, some drive-ins began to show pornographic movies in less family-centered time slots to bring in extra income. This became a problem because it allowed for censored materials to be available to a wide audience, some for whom viewing was illegal. This also led to concern about the availability and uncontrollability of adult-centered media in the general public. The drive-in was open to creative abuse, such as the smuggling in of viewers in the trunks of cars to avoid paying for individual tickets.
Many drive-ins devised very elaborate and sometimes quirky modes of comfort. Some drive-ins provided small propane heaters, attempting to entice their patrons to come in colder months. Some drive-ins provided a heating or air-conditioning system via underground ducts to heat or cool patrons, but due to their frequency of becoming homes for rodents, many people actually ended up with a car full of mice instead. Audio systems varied greatly during the era of drive-ins. Some used portable speakers on trucks during the early days but this proved ineffective since the people in the front were blasted with sound while the people in the back could not adequately hear what was being said. One solution came in the form of small speakers which could be hooked onto the sides of the vehicles. These also had issues with quality and did not provide stereo sound. Later still, as in-car stereos became standard equipment, broadcast of the audio track on particular radio frequencies permitted the most efficient means of delivery.
During their height, drive-ins used attention-grabbing gimmicks to entice even more people to become patrons. Some drive-ins installed small runways for their patrons to fly in on. Other drive-ins had strange and unusual attractions such as a small petting zoo or a cage of monkeys for the enthusiasts to come and see. Recognizing the growing importance of pop-culture, many of the larger drive-ins had celebrities come and open their movies at a particular drive-in or invited a particular musical group to come and play before the show. Some drive-ins actually held religious services on Sunday morning and evening.
Over time, the economics of real estate made the large property areas increasingly expensive for drive-ins to operate successfully. Land became far too valuable for businesses like drive-ins, which in most cases were summer-only. Widespread adoption of daylight saving time subtracted an hour from outdoor evening viewing time. These changes and the advent of color televisions, VCRs and video rentals led to a sharp decline in the popularity of drive-ins. Business itself with a drive-in was subject to the whim of nature; as inclement weather often caused cancellations. They eventually lapsed into a quasi-novelty status with the remaining handful catering to a generally nostalgic audience, though many drive-ins continue to successfully operate in isolated areas, such as the ones in Eden, North Carolina, and Eau Claire, Wisconsin, Oak Harbor on Whidbey Island, Washington. Many drive-in movie sites remain, repurposed as storage sites, or sites of flea markets. In fact, the largest drive-in theater in the world, the Fort Lauderdale Swap Shop, doubles as the world's largest daily flea market.
Another example of a drive in-turned-flea market is Spotlight 88 in North Sewickley Township, Pennsylvania, which ended business as a drive-in after an F3 tornado destroyed much of the property on May 31, 1985. As a joke after the tornado hit, the owners put up in the now showing sign Gone with the Wind. Spotlight 88 remains open despite competition from other flea markets in the area, most notably Rogers Community Auction and Flea Market in Rogers, Ohio, as well as the recently-opened Big Beaver Marketplace in nearby Big Beaver, Pennsylvania.
2001 marked the inception of the "Do-It-Yourself" Drive-In, which utilized contemporary tools such as LCD projectors and micro-radio transmitters. The first was the Liberation Drive-In in Oakland, California, which sought to reclaim under utilized urban spaces such as vacant parking lots in the downtown area. The following years have seen the rise of the "guerrilla drive-in" movement, in which groups of dedicated individuals orchestrate similar outdoor film and video screenings. Showings are often organized online, and participants meet at specified locations to watch films projected on bridge pillars or warehouses. The content featured at these screenings have frequently been independent or experimental films, cult movies, or otherwise alternative programming. The best known guerilla drive-ins include the Santa Cruz Guerilla Drive-In in Santa Cruz, California, MobMov in San Francisco, California and Hollywood MobMov in Los Angeles, California, and most recently Guerilla Drive-In Victoria in Victoria. The Bell Museum of Natural History in Minneapolis, Minnesota has recently begun summer "bike-ins," inviting only pedestrians or people on bicycles onto the grounds for both live music and movies. In various Canadian cities, including Toronto, Ottawa and Halifax, al-fresco movies projected on the walls of buildings or temporarily erected screens in parks operate during the Summer and cater to a pedestrian audience.
As with conventional motion picture cinemas, the concession stand, also called a snack bar, is where a drive-in earns most of its profits. As a result, much of a drive-in's promotion is oriented toward the concession stand, to the extent that it was later proven that some such ads had subliminal messages. The typical snack bar offers any food that can be served quickly, such as hot dogs, pizza, cheeseburgers, popcorn, soft drinks, candy and French fries.
To send patrons to the concessions stands, trailer advertisements called snipes were projected before the feature and during any intermissions. Now a great source of nostalgia, these concession commercials often featured animated food such as dancing chili dogs and talking boxes of popcorn. These ads were collected in 1993 for a video, Hey Folks, It's Intermission Time (distributed by Something Weird Video), and the 1978 film Grease has a scene in a drive-in showing such an ad during the song "Sandy".
Drive-in theaters have also been featured as movie locations, notably Peter Bogdanovich's Targets (1968) about a veteran horror film actor (Boris Karloff) making a personal appearance at a drive-in theater while a freeway sniper (Tim O'Kelly), hiding behind the movie screen, prepares to shoot the theater's customers. In Back to the Future, Part III, a unoccupied drive-in is where the DeLorean time machine is launched into the Old West.
"Moments to Remember," a series of paintings by Beaumont, Texas, artist Randy Welborn, includes two paintings of Beaumont drive-ins in the mid-1950s. "Goin' Steady" depicts the Circle Drive-In which opened in 1948, and "A Summer Remembered" shows the South Park Drive-In which opened in 1950. In Welborn's audio slide shows, he explains the photographic research and painting techniques he uses to recapture the past.