Mid-century glory days of drive-in movie theaters
The late 1950s and the early 1960s, though, were the real drive-in glory days, when there were about 4,000 such venues spread across the country — about a quarter of the total number of movie theatres. No doubt much of the popularity was thanks to the teen set, who flocked to drive-ins on date night.
While the article below speculated that only World War 3 would bring an end to Americans’ love of big-screen in-car entertainment, traditional indoor theaters accounted for the vast majority of all screens in the US. In fact, as of 2022, there were apparently just 321 drive-ins left in the country.
The trend in Drive-In Theaters: A look back from 1950
By Charles R. Underbill, Jr. RCA Victor Division, Camden, NJ in the Journal of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (1950)
THE FIRST DRIVE-IN THEATER was built near Camden, N.J., in 1933. By the end of World War II, there were only about 60 drive-in theaters, indicating that the idea had caught on slowly during those eight years before the war.
It was not until after the war that the wave of open-air-see-the-movies-from-your-automobile enterprises really got underway.
During the four years since VJ Day, over 1000 have been constructed, and many more are being planned or are under construction.
As soon as unrationed gasoline again became available, the public took to the highways for the wide-open spaces. The drive-ins were doing capacity business.
Prospective theater owners could not build indoor theaters at first because of government restrictions on building materials. Then followed prohibitive construction costs.
It was quickly realized that drive-in theaters could be constructed of readily available materials and equipment. It was also determined that they could be built at a cost of approximately 20% of the postwar costs involved in building an indoor theater of an equivalent patron capacity, based on an average drive-in audience of approximately three persons per car.
Simultaneously, postwar projection and sound equipments were announced which had been designed and built expressly for drive-in theater use. It made obsolete most of the equipment used in drive-in theaters before the war, especially the sound equipment.
The largest single factor in contributing to public acceptance of drive-in theaters is the in-car speaker, introduced by RCA in 1941 just prior to our entry into World War II. Experience gained previous to the war pointed the way to successful drive-in theater construction, equipment, and management.
The in-car speaker removed most of the restrictions on locations where the use of centralized speaker systems at the screen would have classed them as public nuisances. For the first time, a theater patron had complete control over the sound.
To the amazement of even the drive-in theater owners, in came a type of patronage rarely seen at indoor theaters; the physically handicapped, invalids, convalescents, the aged, deaf people, expectant mothers, parents with infants and small children whole families, dressed as they pleased in the privacy and comfort of their own domain on wheels.
They are continuing to come in increasing numbers from rural, suburban, and city areas a new clientele representing a long-neglected but highly important segment of some 30,000,000 people of the “Forgotten Audience,” who, according to the claims of some producers, had not been attending indoor movie theaters.
These are the backbone of drive-in theater patronage, and everything is being done to retain their acceptance of the drive-in theater.
Drive-in theater patrons can do as they please within the dictates of decency in the privacy of their automobiles. They can shell and eat roasted peanuts, smoke, hold a normal conversation, regulate ventilation, and relax in wider and more comfortable seats with more legroom than possible in an indoor theater.
There is no parking problem or standing in line for admission. Parents are relieved of the worries and expense associated with employing suitable baby sitters, or of the conduct of their children if left at home. Obviously no drive-in theater can afford a reputation for being lax in enforcing good conduct.
Employees like working in drive-in theaters. There is a bit of carnival or county fair atmosphere which adds to the spirit of showmanship. Even the projectionist finds a difference — instead of looking down toward the screen, he looks up, as do the theater patrons.
Rubidoux Drive-In Theatre, On Highway 60 — West Riverside, Calif.
Special services and features of old drive-in theaters
Taking their cues from the gasoline filling stations of the leading oil companies, aggressive drive-in theater exhibitors render those extra services and courtesies which experience has proven gain public favor: windshield wiping, car towing, tire changing, a free gallon of gas for dry tanks.
Many other services have been made available to the public which are customarily not found in most indoor theaters. There are diaper and other vending machines carrying personal items, free bottle warmers for baby formulas, a nurse in attendance, call service for doctors or others subject to emergency service calls.
Thus, the drive-in theater has long since passed from the novelty category into the realm of big show business. As the number of drive-in theaters has increased, picture availability has improved, bringing in the regular movie-going public by the car-full.
Returns on capital investment are an investor’s dream and have been so startling as to attract new capital from sources far remote from the theater business. The maintenance costs of drive-in theaters have been estimated to run as low as 20% of those for an indoor theater.
The concession business of the drive-in theater is the envy of almost any roadside stand, and is estimated to account for about 25% of the gross income.
Each year, rapid strides are manifest in drive-in theaters. There is now available a highly scientific modern toll system, a modification of collection systems used at the largest bridges and tunnels, which is a substantially foolproof method of collecting and recording toll receipts, at the same time eliminating the use of tickets.
There are airplane drive-ins and canoe drive-in theaters. Glamour prevails in many drive-in theaters, featuring lighted waterfalls over the rear of the screen tower, beautiful landscaping, and ultra-modern concession stands with exclusive names such as “Snack-N-Vue Bar” and “Din- A-Peek Restaurant.”
In fact, everything is being put into drive-in theaters which experience indicates the public likes with their outdoor moving picture entertainment.
A free rein has been given to the imagination in the architects’ plans, each new plan vying with those of competitors for increased public acceptance of drive-in theater environment, offering an economical and versatile means of recreation, relaxation, and general personal enjoyment for each and every patron.
About drive-in movie theater speakers
Figure 3 is a ramp station comprising two speakers and a junction box. The speaker housings are of die-cast aluminum, rugged enough to withstand being run over by an automobile without crushing. They are small in size and light in weight and are easily handled with one hand.
The hook or neck construction was designed so the speaker can be hung on the car window, with the window almost closed, as would be necessary in rainy or cold weather. The volume control knob is of bright red plastic and is tamper-proof.
The future demand for more drive-in movies
… There is every indication that the public needs and wants more drive-in theaters, if strategically located, wisely constructed, and properly equipped.
The trend is toward drive-in theaters having smaller car capacities which can adequately serve rural or suburban communities. Many have already outgrown their car capacities. The solution has been simple and economical in those theaters owning sufficient land. It has been necessary only to add and equip one or more ramps.
Indications are that an undetermined number of well-established drive-in theaters which have been in operation for several years have made plans for improvements and for replacing their old equipment.
All of these activities are conclusive proof that the drive-in theater business is here to stay. Exhibitors were literally pushed into it as an aftermath of World War II. In the opinion of the author, only a World War III can be its nemesis.
The old Airline Drive-in Theatre sign and back of screen (Dallas, Texas)
Morris Plains Drive-In Theatre – New Jersey (1950s-1960s)
Blue Dell Drive-In in Irwin, PA (1940s/1950s)
A variety of vintage drive-in theater window speakers
Two old chrome drive-in speakers
How people used old drive-in movie speakers by hanging them in the car window
Impac by RCA: Speakers for old drive-in movie theaters
Old drive-in movie theater speaker set
From a museum collection/car show, in front of a gorgeous orange & white 1956 Mercury
Movie speaker in the car window