C.J. Marshall: Significa: A fading piece of Americana
A major piece of Americana will probably be gone within a few years.
I'm talking about that cherished institution which served as a right-of-passage for so many young people - and even some older folks - in this country, the drive-in movie.
Ah, the memories. One of the first movies I recalled seeing at the drive-in was "Operation Petticoat," starring Cary Grant and Tony Curtis. Mom and Dad bundled the three of us - my brother, sister and myself - up in the car one day late in the evening. Because we were going to the drive-in, us kids were allowed to wear our pajamas in the car. Although I knew what going to a movie at a big screen theater was, I had never experienced such a thing before, as we ran around outside the car, waiting for the show to start.
The movie was good and I recall we all laughed uproariously at the antics of Tony Curtis aboard a World War II submarine - particularly when they snuck a pig on board for New Year's dinner, as well as when they had to paint the sub pink. Another fond memory I have occurred a few years later when we went and saw "The Dirty Dozen" starring Lee Marvin at the drive-in. Again it was a good film and because we were at the drive-in - as opposed to an enclosed theater - I was able to ask some questions about what was going on on-screen instead of being told to "shhh!" all the time.
Yes, the drive-in theater is definitely a part of the American life-style, but unfortunately it will probably not be in existence much longer, due to advances in technology.
The drive-in was born in the 1930s in Camden, N.J. The idea quickly caught on and by the peak period of the 1950s and 1960s, there were thousands of drive-in facilities - particularly in rural communities - across country.
In addition to be a convenient form of community entertainment, drive-in chains also provided an outlet for upcoming and independent filmmakers. You see, there's a difference a bit of a difference between a movie at a drive-in and a drive-in movie - which were specifically made to be shown on the drive-in circuit of theaters.
In the first instance - such as the movies I mentioned earlier, these were films made by the major studios to be shown first at the more prestigious indoor theater chains. After they had run their course, these films were offered to on the drive-in circuit at a reduced rate, which was why you often saw such films at a cheaper price.
By contrast, drive-in movies were made by independent filmmakers and smaller movie studios specifically for first run release on the drive-in circuit. These films were shot in black and white or cheaper color film as part of a way to keep down production costs. Actors where generally Hollywood unknowns hoping for that big break, or stars who had seen better days trying to keep working in the face of fading popularity.
In addition, these films never set records for good scripts, camera work, special effects, or just about anything else for that matter. If they were good, it was almost by accident as opposed to design. They were just made with the idea of hopefully making a profit because the cost overhead was considerably less than a major Hollywood release. Let's face it, films such as "Eegah," "Robot Monster," and "Attack of the Puppet People," are primarily cherished by bad film fans for their cheesiness cheapness as opposed to their quality.
On side note: I have seen these and many other such films during the late, late shows commonly run by independent television stations through the 1990s. When I learned the background of where these films were first shown, I asked someone who lived through that period about the situation, and he confirmed my suspicions - namely, the reason a lot of young couples went to the drive-in in those days was to do things besides watch the movie. (Heh!)
Anyway, drive-in theater chains had a number of built-in problems that caused them to go into a slow decline, starting in the 1970s. In most places they were seasonal, and so could only be in operation during the warmer months. Many acres of empty land are required for an effective drive-in operation, and people who own that land often find more valuable uses for it. A drive-in theater can only operate after sunset, putting a built-in limit the number of shows, and profits.
Still, drive-ins continued to hold on through the 20th century. When I first came to work here at The Daily Review, there was still a drive-in in Wysox, although that went out of operation a short time later. All told, there's only about 350 left across the nation, and their existence may soon be challenged as well, due to technical advancements.
Over the past 10 years, digital photography has been progressing at a fantastic rate. Now, an entire movie can be shot digitally, instead of the more traditional method of being processed on film stock. This has resulted in a much sharper, cleaner and brighter image than was previously possible. Those in the film industry favor it because its also cheaper. Instead of having to strike numerous prints for release to the theaters, a film can be transmitted and downloaded to those theaters at a fraction of the cost. As a result, the industry intends to phase out films made with film in the not too distant future.
The problem is that with drive-ins, the cost of converting to a digital system is even more expensive than indoor theaters. The distance from the projector to the screen is greater, and a brighter bulb is needed to do the job. The drive-in operations left in this nation are already reeling from a declining customer base and rising costs, which makes it very probable that most if not all will disappear when movies produced with film stock become a thing of the past.
This isn't the first time such a thing has happened, nor will it be the last. The eight track tape, so common in the 1970s, gave way to the cassette, which in turn was pushed aside by the compact disc, but then lost its spot to the MPEG player. And I'll confess, when ever I hear some young kid say "What's a record player?" I just want to scream.
Still, life goes on and you can't stop progress. When the drive-in movie finally pass into history, it will remain an important nostalgia for boomers such as myself, as well as a few generations before and after.