79 Years of the Drive-In

Yesterday was the 79th anniversary of the invention of the drive-in movie theatre. This is a small and unimportant anniversary compared to the fact that June 6 is also the anniversary of D-Day (I spent much of my day thinking about those startlingly heroic men; my grandfather is a WWII vet), but I cannot shoot D-Day (and probably would not have wanted to even if a woman had been allowed near the scenes of battle); I can, and do, however, photograph old drive-in theatres when I find them.

Of course, many of the remaining drive-in theatres look like Oklahoma’s 66 West Twin here. Technological and cultural changes haven’t been kind to the drive-in movie and its fans, have they?

It seems a little odd, really; the drive-in was created in part so that people could enjoy a movie in a more casual, relaxed setting than the downtown theatre. Our culture has indeed become more casual and relaxed—in the 40s and 50s, people wore their Sunday best when they went out to “see the show”, as my Grandma Sally always said. But the multiplex arose and captured our fancy, to say nothing of cable television offering movies on-demand or devices like Roku. Even so, if you want to GO see a movie but not fuss over it, it’s hard to beat the drive-in—especially if you have kids. I remember being dressed in my PJs to go see a drive-in movie more than once! Somehow, though, despite the bang for the family’s buck—drive-ins usually had a playground on-site for the crumb-crunchers—the venues fell out of favour.

Perhaps even more dangerously for the survival of the drive-in, though, the value of the real estate drive-ins sat upon became increasingly valuable. Drive-ins such as the Gratiot Drive-In, where I remember seeing movies at as just a tyke, were far too close to growing cities like Detroit, Saint Clair Shores, and Roseville to survive.

This grand 1948 drive in was built with no expense spared, and had a cascading waterfall on the back side of the screen facing Gratiot. The water fell into a tub at the foot of the tower—perfect for youngsters to play in on hot summer nights. Of course, pranksters couldn’t resist having a little fun, too—one Detroit resident remembers someone putting bubbles into the water. Can you imagine?

courtesy WaterWinterWonderland.com

By the time I was visiting the Gratiot, the waterfall had long been stopped—Dad told me he thinks they stopped running it some time during the 60s. Of course, that beautiful, neon-bedecked Gratiot tower and Art Deco lettering remained the backdrop for decades of cruising up and down Gratiot. Sadly, in 1984, the drive-in was shut down and razed—razed, in fact, at the same time the Tigers were winning the World Series. Replaced with a strip mall (what else?) that has become quite ratty indeed in recent years, I wonder if longtime residents wish the Gratiot could have been saved, and how things might be different in the area had it remained. I certainly wonder, myself.

It’s funny—I was very, very young at the time we visited, but places like the Gratiot and Troy drive-ins, as well as the neon still glowing along Detroit’s main arteries like Woodward and Gratiot—made a tremendous impression on me. In fact, I still remember heading to the concession stand with Mom and coming back with a real prize—grape popcorn! (God only knows how they made it purple and grape-tasting, but we were all very impressed.) Whenever I return home to Michigan for a visit, I can’t help but realize that my love for vintage and retro Americana was born from a seed planted likely from the time I opened

It's not SkyView, it's AmericaView

SkyView Drive-In, Route 66, Illinois

my eyes! No wonder I chase these pieces of our past clear across the country, just for a chance to photograph them. It’s in my blood!

There are fewer than 400 drive-in theatres operating in the US today; at the drive-in’s peak, there were over 4,000. Most of them have been razed and replaced by shopping centers, like the Gratiot was, or housing developments. It’s a shame, really; drive-ins are so thoroughly American, and such fun to visit. It seems that those placed in out-of-the-way places or areas that suffered an economic hit in the 60s-80s are the ones that survived—funny how that works, don’t you think?

When we lived in West Virginia, we were blessed enough to have two drive-ins within a half-hour’s drive! Of course, with the steel mills mostly gone, the people—and thus need to build —had gone with them (or at least to Pittsburgh, 40 minutes away). This turn in the economy may be what saved the Hilltop (WV) and Winter (OH) drive-ins, both of which we patronized whenever there was a movie worth seeing. Amazingly, my husband had never once been to a drive-in before we married! I suspect he still thinks having to bring some sort of mosquito repellent to the movies is a bit odd, but the experience is entirely worth it if you ask me.

It is to our generation that the torch is being passed, I think. Yes, drive-in movie theatres are a small bit in the grand scheme of the world, but again, they are uniquely and wonderfully American (though I believe there are about 100 drive-ins in the rest of the world; they were inspired by our own)! These

Midway Drive-In, East Palestine, Ohio

The Midway Drive-In, Ohio.

remaining drive-ins deserve our protection and patronage if we can manage. Though I know some will fall at some point, unable to resist change or support themselves financially, I’d hate to see more drive-ins end up like the 66 West Twin and the Midway, seen on the right.

You see, there’s something a bit magical and fun about sitting in your car (or, better yet, if the theatre operator allows you, sitting in front of your car in lawn chairs or on a blanket), watching a movie with the stars above you, the grass below you, and fireflies buzzing about while crickets chirping at the theatre’s perimeter. It’s something I think everyone ought to experience at least once, too! (Besides, if you go once, you’ll be undeniably hooked and won’t ever want to stop going. So go!)

Thanks to the advent of the internet, finding a local drive-in isn’t as difficult as you might think it is. Sites such as Drive-Ins.com, DriveInMovie.com, and DriveInTheatre.com. I’m pleased to see how many drive-ins have informative websites, too—and really, you’ll never know when you are going to stumble across a still-operating drive-in while just out exploring (we found one locally that way a few weeks ago). Just remember: drive-ins especially make most of their income from the concession stand, so please patronize it while you are enjoying the show. I’ve found that drive-in concessions are actually reasonably priced; for instance, at the Skyview Drive-In of Lancaster, it’s only $2.50 for a cheeseburger and $7.50 for a pizza. A small price to pay, really, for keeping an icon around, right? (The Skyview also offers a fishtail sandwich…my curiosity is really piqued.)

Believe it or not, there are even some encouraging people to start up a new or restore an old drive-in. We can hope, right? The drive-ins that do remain, particularly those in operation, are finally and rightfully being recognized for the treasures they are.

Truly, there’s always good news on the drive-in front if you look for it. A week from tomorrow, Tulsa’s famed Admiral Twin Drive-In, sitting right on Route 66, will reopen after it burned to the ground in the autumn of 2010.

Fabled

Route 66 Admiral Twin Drive In, waiting to be rebuilt

That’s the before. I’m so glad this theatre has been rebuilt so that generations to come may enjoy the excitement of seeing a movie outdoors, aren’t you?

(Maybe next week Ron or Laurel can hook me up with a few “after” pictures to share with you ’till I get back to marvellous Tulsa. ;D)

It’s summer. It’s beautiful. This weekend, pile the family into the car with some blankets and chairs, and head out to your local drive-in. I guarantee you’ll have a great time.

Just…don’t forget some sort of mosquito repellent.

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3 thoughts on “79 Years of the Drive-In

  1. Jen, I was just thinking today about my first photo project as an Art History major in college – eons ago at this point- and it was about the abandoned drive in movie theatres that I came across in my travels. I think of so many places that now have Walmarts or whatnot on them, and only a handful of people and myself remember when there was a drive-in on that very same location.

    • Oh, wow. That would be amazing…do you have any of it around? You should post some…or maybe keep it for the 80th next year?

      I was looking at one of the drive-in sites today and checking out Ohio drive-ins. They try to keep track of what has happened…one, for instance, is going to become a housing development. Another drive-in was near my first apartment in Michigan—the drive-in is gone, but the attached family fun center (mini-golf, batting cages, etc) remains. In fact, as recently as ’03 the screen itself was just lying on the ground, all rolled up! Next time we’re back in the D I am going to have to try and find out if that’s true about the screen….

  2. What a great post, I grew up in the 70’s and we went to a drive-in every weekend as teens. Loved the ‘Dusk 2 Dawn’ features. My Brother and sister-ilaws first date was a drive in, shortly after she left the car to use the ladies room there was an interuption in the movie….”would Ken come get Adele at the concession” (because Adele couldn’t find her way back to the car) HA..ALL the cars started honking…..we still laugh about that story.

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