By on August 13, 2013

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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.

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Early 1960s era Pontiac glove box lid with proto-cup holders.

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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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

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25 Comments on “Save The Drive-Ins...”


  • avatar

    Thanks for the heads-up on the switch Ronnie. The drive-in movie concept has been all but dead for many years up here in western Canada and I hope this program works well enough to save the few that remain in your country. I also loved the drive-in experience as a kid, even into my early 20s.

  • avatar
    pb35

    I have such great memories of going to the drive-in with my parents and siblings when I was a kid as well as when I started driving/dating.

    Me and my girl (now wife) would get an 8-pack of Bud each (the 8 oz. bottles), and catch a movie or 2. Watch the first one, then cruise over to the other screen with the lights off.

    Some flicks I recall seeing:

    Days of Thunder
    Indiana Jones
    K-9 (lol)

  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    I saw Men in Black and later, What Lies Beneath at the drive-in, and I think that’s the most recent time I’ve been there. As I recall it was an interesting crowd of people, as the theater was out in rural Indiana. As far as I know, it’s still there.

  • avatar
    sirwired

    Finally! Now I know why glovebox lids had those cupholder-like-things in them.

    Fun Fact: In addition to cup-divots, the B5 (’98-’05) Passat has a wine-bottle-shaped recess in the base of the glove box; it also has its own little A/C vent to help keep it cool.

  • avatar
    Slab

    “For theaters in places where it gets cold so they only operate seasonally”

    Las Vegas has the opposite problem. Summer evenings are still too darn hot to be sitting inside a metal box. I remember going to drive-ins back in the late 70s/ early 80s. The best way was to back in a pickup, sit on lounge chairs in the truck bed, and hope for a gentle breeze.

  • avatar
    kuponoodles

    Sadly, this will fail.
    Kids nowadays have 40+ inch 3D, 4K, LED, smart tv’s at home… they won’t watch a movie that’s half obstructed by the front passengers.

    If the drive-passes out rental Tablets so that the kids can watch the movie, pause, play some stupid game, etc etc, while quietly on headphones, and let the parents enjoy the movie up front, then that might work.

    Older kids and consenting adults aren’t going to a drive-in for their…. “extracurricular” activities. Plenty of other places for that.

    • 0 avatar
      DenverMike

      It’s no different than a 2 hr road trip for kids not interested in the movie on the screen. Don’t they normally have their own movies, video games, tablet/smartphone and 10,000 songs to keep them entertained and quite?

      As kids, we just had to shut up and sit still, but that’s another topic.

  • avatar
    DenverMike

    I blame the cineplex, VCRs, HB0, Skinemax, Chicken tax and Downloads.

    Great memories at drive-ins, but they have to be making more money off the swap meets plus snack bars without the movie industry take a huge cut.

    I guess you could run the AC or heater if having your car running doesn’t bother the others. So you park in the back. Exhaust condensation could be an issue, but since the cold would drive many away, you almost have the whole place to yourself.

  • avatar
    Lie2me

    They’ve outlived there usefulness, no great shame in that. The images were blurry the sound horrendous. It’s either too hot or too cold. We all can see a much better movie in our homes then at a drive-in. I didn’t even know there were any left. Nice memories, but time to move along.

  • avatar
    Kenmore

    They were popular. So were hay rides at a family farm. All gone now.

    • 0 avatar
      mcs

      >> They were popular. So were hay rides at a family farm. All gone now.

      Lots of family farms thriving here in New England. Hay rides, corn mazes, pick-your-own produce, free range poultry and beef, along with artisan foods. They found their niche helped by a nearby high income population willing to pay extra for better food.

  • avatar
    whynotaztec

    When I was a kid, my parents took me to the drive-in to see Jaws…I fell asleep. That was in Middleton MA, now a shopping plaza.

    As a teenager, I snuck in to see Kentucky Fried Movie. Raise your hand if you remember the shower scene………..

    A few years ago I took my kids to see Finding Nemo in Lunenburg MA, I think there are condos there now.

    Somewhere in between my wife and I found the Best Western Movie Manor in Colorado. The hotel rooms had big windows so you could lay in bed and watch the movie. We did see a flatbed outfitted with bench seats pull in with a least a dozen people aboard, crazy!

    • 0 avatar
      mcs

      >> That was in Middleton MA, now a shopping plaza.

      At least Richardson’s Ice Cream is still there. Still jam packed. Still use their own dairy herd out back to produce the cream. The kids used to like to get their ice cream, then go to see the newly born calves. Almost always one or two interesting cars in the parking lot.

      I didn’t see the Wellfleet Drive-in (Wellfleet, MA) on the list, so I took a look at their web site. They already have their digital projector. Given the Cape Cod location (lots of tourists looking for something to do), they’re probably doing well.

  • avatar
    -Nate

    I too grew up in the local Drive – Ins nationwide , I think my favorite one was The Freshpond Drive – In in Freshpond , Ma , just out side of Boston , Ma.

    Arriving in Los Angeles in the fall of 1970 I was pleased to find many great Drive – Ins operating and when my son was old enough I began taking him the The Pickwick Drive – In in Burbank , you’ve all seen it a million times over in movies and TV shows . sadly closed and a mini mall thing now .

    I’d heard they were coming back in the Southwest , non ? .

    My Father tried to get me to buy and operate the Drive – In Theatre in Bellingham , Wa, when it was close to closing , now it’s a parking lot for WSU .

    I saw Kentucky Fried Movie , The Groove Tube and many other odd flicks in The Rialto Theatre in South Pasadena , also now closed as they didn’t bother to ever clean the place so less and less people were willing to go in now matter how nice a vintage local Theatre it was .

    -Nate

  • avatar
    Zackman

    There are a couple of drive-ins in our area. The last time I went to a drive-in was twice in 1977, just before Wifey and I were married.

    Truth be told, I really have no desire to go to one again – seeing a movie on a huge screen right in front of you in a nice theater with a super sound system in a comfortable seat with a bag of popcorn and a Coke next to my Honey at a Saturday 4 pm matinee, then to dinner afterwards – well, why go out and travel a half-hour late in the evening and coming home very late and risking an accident… I suppose that’s my age speaking!

    True, I really enjoyed the drive-ins when I was young with a bunch of friends in the late 60s – mid-70s – well, it was a different time.

    Now? I’m not really that nostalgic about that stuff, plus at 62 years of age – Hollywood doesn’t make movies for my age demographic anymore, so perhaps that’s why we rarely go to movies, especially in the past year.

    FWIW, the last movie we went to was “42″. A very well-done and enjoyable picture.

    So, while going to the drive-in was a great experience back in the day, having to travel a distance to attend one now, I’ll pass for now, but I’ll never say “never again”!

  • avatar
    Crabspirits

    We usually go to Cascade Drive-in outside Chicago every year. We back in the xB, and relax in the cargo area with the hatch up.

    Sound is broadcast over the radio, so if you have a nice system in your car, then it will be better than being in a theater. It’s probably the only time you can be thankful your neighbor has loud subwoofers. The best part is that it’s a double feature of new movies for $9ea or sometimes $14 per carload! That can’t be beat.

    Hopefully it’s still around when my daughter is old enough to enjoy movies. Having kids sit still in a theater can sometimes be a pain. We will be at the drive-in a lot. (Edit: Just noticed they have digital projection. Sweet.)

  • avatar
    Pig_Iron

    I hope this succeeds.

  • avatar
    Athos Nobile

    We went to a local one twice this year. Melbourne has 2. We loved it (it was the first time we went to something like that).

    Sound came via the FM radio and gladly my car has a nice 8 speaker system.

    And you got to see the locals: utes with sofas in the tray or cargo box, wagons of all sorts, hot rods, people dressing PJs…

  • avatar
    mnm4ever

    Just recently had two drive-in movie experiences this summer, and the contrast between the two was amazing to see:

    Early this summer we went to Kentucky Lake for a “vacation” and to visit my son who lives in KY. They are around 30 miles from a city, close enough to go to movies, but far enough that its a bit of a hassle. The local drive-in has been in business over 50 years, its very quaint, older place but clean and well maintained. From what I hear, they sell out pretty much every night they are open, and the crowd was a mix of families and groups of teenagers, and the place was mostly packed an hour before the movies even started. At least when we were there, the weather cools off enough at night to make it enjoyable to sit outside. I saw no obnoxious behavior, the teens sat out in groups, having fun, throwing the football around some before the movie started, no one was yelling or anything, the young kids were running around before the movie playing, hanging out in the playground while the movies played. The food… wow… this place had literally the best pizza we had in the area, homemade and fresh, vegetarian pizzas, actually it rivals my favorite local pizza place as well. They also server fresh made burgers and fries along with the usual movie stuff. Pizzas were $9-11, drinks were $1.25, candy was a buck, popcorn was $2, etc. When was the last time you went to a movie and didn’t get reamed on food prices? And it was good food! We had a GREAT time, it was like a time warp to the 50s, kids on dates, families enjoying the movie together, no worries about people talking behind you, I think we spent less than $40 for 5 people to watch two movies, eat dinner and snacks and drinks all night. We even brought our dogs, as did others. Oh, and the projector is already upgraded to digital.

    Couple weeks later, back in Florida, we think, hey, lets try the drive-in here, we had so much fun before. It was like 40 miles away, but we thought it would be worth it. Nope. This place was about as old as the one in KY, but not maintained. It was dirty and decrepit, smelled bad, etc. They did not sell out but there was a pretty large crowd so its definitely not a problem attracting business. The food was not fresh or good, it was low grade movie theater food… wish we hadn’t skipped dinner this time. At least it wasn’t expensive though, and it was cheap to get in. We brought the dogs, which was allowed, but they have to remain the vehicle at all times (unlike KY where we could walk them around and everyone wants to play with them) but that’s probably just a local law thing. The screen was falling apart so there were grid lines showing during the entire movie, not sure if the projector was digital. The crowd wasn’t polite, nice families, it was obnoxious teens and lots of older couples, it seems like the primary draw for them was the ability to smoke during the movie. We were surrounded by cigarettes, which oddly I didn’t notice in KY where practically everyone smokes everywhere. Lots of little kids running around screaming during the movies, and people constantly complaining about other cars leaving their hatchbacks open blocking the view. And, being Florida in July, it was HOT, even at night we were sweating. But the crowning moment was when 2 or 3 flying roaches flew into the car, perhaps looking for our tasteless pizza? I don’t know, but that was it for me, we slayed the bugs and rolled up the windows, time for idling and AC. We ended up staying for both movies, got some McDs and went home, I swore never to go back.

    Now I know a lot of the reasons the FL drive-in wasn’t as fun as the KY drive-in has nothing to do with the drive-in. Florida in the summer is too hot even at night, the clientele that goes there is just what people are like in rural FL, etc. But for whatever reason, the people in KY appreciate what they have there and support it, keep it a fun place to go and enjoy it so I have no doubt they will remain in business for another 40+ yrs, passing it down in the family. I doubt the one in FL will remain open. We have a really big drive-in in Tampa that apparently is very popular and already upgraded to digital too, I’m sure it will remain open but they have a crime problem (due to location) so we don’t go there.

  • avatar
    jimbob457

    See: joebobbriggs.com John Bloom also played the local yokel, well-connected relative who Lefty fired (to his ultimate regret) in the movie ‘Casino’.

  • avatar
    afflo

    When I lived in California, I would occasionally go to the Skyline Drive in in Santa Cruz, before it closed. $10/adult, kids free, for a double-feature.

    Now that I live in Texas, I don’t know of any around me. The Alamo Draft House, however, hosts summer movie nights at the Botanical Gardens here in San Antonio. Free movies in a sort of natural amphitheater, usually classic films (Roman Holiday, Singing in the Rain, etc.). People gather with lawn chairs and blankets, and coolers filled with Shiner Bock. It’s a great time!

    The alcohol bit is the reason why I’d never go to a drive-in here. Pitchers of beer are expected at movie houses around here thanks to Alamo Drafthouse and Santikos theaters. Sitting in your car, keys in the ignition to run the radio in a drive-in would be tantamount to careening through the streets with a .20 in the eyes of the courts. Better to go inside!


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