The West Side Drive In movie theater opened on the north side of Eight Mile Road, just across from Detroit, in 1940. Two decades later my parents would put my younger sister between them on the front seat and the three older kids would sit in the back as we watched movies from the comfort of our 1961 Pontiac Catalina. If it got chilly, my folks would spread out a blanket for us. If my dad brought back drinks from the snack bar, my mom would flip down the glove box door and set the drinks down in indentations just for that purpose, an artifact of the other kind of American drive-ins, restaurants that brought food to your car. Drive-ins were popular with families, teenagers too. Not everything that happened in the back seat was as wholesome as my siblings and I dozing off. It’s probably safe to say that a lot of American families were started and expanded at drive-in theaters. Americans liked to do everything in their cars. By the early 1960s, the automobile had made all sorts of “drive-in” businesses possible, from restaurants to dry cleaners. At one time there were more than 4,000 drive-in motion picture theaters in the United States, one fourth of all of the commercial movie screens in the country. Today there are fewer than 400. Honda now wants us to help save the drive-ins.
The West Side Drive In was maybe 2 miles from my family’s home in northwest Detroit. By the time I had my own kids and we wanted them to experience the little bit of Americana that seeing a movie from your car is, the nearest drive-in was still on Eight Mile Rd but it was way over on the east side. Today I believe the nearest drive-in movie theater, actually the only one in the entire Detroit area, is down in Dearborn, on Ford road, appropriate for a car-centric thing. The decline started, perhaps ironically, in the 1950s, when car culture was king. Television, then new to American homes, was probably a big factor. The introduction of the videocassette recorder no doubt accelerated the process as did improved audio at theaters including things like Dolby. Why sit in the comfort of your car when you can enjoy the same movie from the comfort of your couch and actually make out the dialog? The speakers that hung on your window may be collectible mid-century antiques, but they didn’t exactly have high fidelity. To stay in business, drive-in theater operators tried all sorts of things like live music between features or fireworks after the shows. Some even tried screening porn, after censorship laws fell and the tawdry trinity of Deep Throat, The Devil in Miss Jones, and Behind The Green Door mainstreamed sexually explicit films, and live wet t-shirt contests. The decline continued.
Changing lifestyles and technologies have reduced the number of outdoor screens to only 360 drive-in theaters still operating today. At their peak in the post WWII era, drive-ins made up one quarter of all screens in the U.S. Today the percentage is down in the low single digits. Finding parts for specialized projection equipment has become a challenge. The few drive-in theaters that remain in business now face another technological challenge, the fact that the motion picture industry is going all digital. Distribution of 35mm prints will stop by the end of this year. While most indoor theaters use digital projection equipment, many drive-ins cannot afford the $75-80,000 dollars it will cost to switch each screen from 35mm film. For theaters in places where it gets cold so they only operate seasonally, it just won’t return a profit on the investment. That’s where Honda’s Project Drive-In hopes to help.
As part of an effort run by its longtime ad agency, RPA, that includes the current buzzword of crowdsourcing, Honda is going to give five drive-ins, chosen by popular vote over the next month on the projectdrivein.com website, new digital projectors. The car company is also encouraging people to patronize their local drive-ins and raise the awareness about the possible extinction of something that was once part of the American landscape. The winning theaters will be revealed next month and all five theaters will host gala celebrations that will include screenings of “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2,” which will be released around the same time.
Project Drive-In also encourages people to use social media to spread the word, with a de rigueur hashtag, and also wants people to pledge to see at least one movie at a drive-in in the near future. The crowdsourcing part is the Honda Project Drive-In Fund, that will be used to expand the gifts of modern projection equipment beyond the five winning theaters. Honda also will be promoting Project Drive-In with displays at their approximately 1,000 U.S. dealers. Alicia Jones, manager of Honda & Acura social marketing said, “Cars and drive-in theaters go hand-in-hand, and it’s our mission to save this decades-old slice of Americana that holds such nostalgia for so many of us. We’re committed to helping the remaining drive-in theaters flourish with the move to digital projection.”
I mentioned drive-in restaurants above. While the Sonic chain is reviving the concept (and don’t you just want to strangle the two stupid characters in their incredibly stupid commercials? Why do some companies like to show their customers as fools?), as with drive-in theaters traditional drive-in restaurants have also declined in number. It just so happens that just a few weeks ago the Detroit Free Press ran a story about the few old-fashioned drive-in restaurants that are still open in the region. While all five that were profiled offer curbside service and use car hops, only Eddie’s Drive-In, on Jefferson in Harrison Twp, within sight of Lake St Clair, has real old school car hops, with roller skates. On Sundays Eddie’s skating car hops even wear poodle skirts, and on Wednesday night a car club meets in their parking lot.
Harrison Twp is way over on the other side of town, but I had a press car from Land Rover and JLR of NA was paying for the gas so I went out to Eddie’s on a Wednesday evening. There weren’t a lot of old cars there, just enough for some car guy atmosphere. The car hops, though, were busy rolling around serving SUVs and minivans full of families. I’m sure the kids’ drinks rested more securely in modern cup holders than in those little metal circles stamped into our Catalina’s glove box lid.
If you decide to follow Honda’s advice and take in a film at a drive-in theater you might want to make the American drive-in experience complete and on the way to or from the movie, stop in at a drive-in restaurant for some burgers and fries. Don’t forget to tip your car hop.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can dig deeper at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS