The cinema has always been both valorised and demonised as a major player in the movement towards sexual liberation in the twentieth century. The intersection of socio-cultural realities and the cinematic imaginary are fairly well charted waters, as are the names of the major figures involved. But among the unsung movers and shakers of cinematic history towards this sexual reordering, I propose a lesser known name be added to the roll call: that of Richard Hollingshead Jr, who 75 years ago this year opened the first ever drive-in movie theatre.
It was on June 6, 1933, that his legendary US Patent No. 1,909,537 for ‘The Park-In Theatre’ was actualised in Camden, New Jersey, where the preferable final appellation ‘Drive-In Theatre’ was adopted. The first ever drive-in movie to be screened was, appropriately enough, Wives Beware (Fred Diblo, 1932), a British film aka Two White Arms which is reputably about trying to, in Tom Waits’s words, ‘getcha little somethin’ that you can’t get at home’ – one of a number of staple slogans which would come to sustain drive-in business for the next 50 years.
A second drive-in appeared in California in 1934 and soon Hollingshead was franchising his invention across America, suing anyone else who dared to build an independent one. But in 1945, a time when there were only 100 drive-ins in the United States, the Supreme Court ruled that Hollingshead’s drive-in patent was null and void and consequently that anyone had the right to open one. As it was, this legal decision happened to coincide with the end of World War Two, the end of rationing and the end of the American economic depression. It also came at the start of the post-war baby boom, the start of the migration of young families from town centres to the newly emerging suburbs and with the rise of a new prosperity that now meant almost everyone could own an automobile. In brief, the conditions were ripe for an explosion in drive-in construction. Anyone with a little land – land outside towns was, like gasoline, cheap then – could build their own drive-in. The audience could watch a movie with the whole family – saving on babysitters, parking and the more expensive indoor town cinema ticket prices, all the while enjoying the comfortable environment of their steel household pet – the family car.
The latter part of the 1940s saw the evolution of sound systems, which went from loudspeakers booming out the soundtrack (and outraging homeowners nearby) to the small in-car speaker on a pole, ‘Don’t forget not to drive away with it!’ Minute revisions were made to the angle of the vertical pile of earth which optimised parked viewing when 500-2000 cars were positioned in semi-circular rows. No car? No problem! There was even a ‘fly-in drive-in’ built, which accommodated a couple of dozen small aircrafts. Then came the introduction of family-friendly niceties like barbeque pits, picnic tables, swings and playgrounds, clowns and circus acts, uniformed attendants, huge neon signs and the single most profitable innovation of all: the legendary concession stand and the ubiquitous intermission film trailers inducing the audience to scarf down loads of buttered popcorn, ice-cream, hot dogs, candy bars and soft drinks – sometimes beer. By 1949 there were 155 drive-ins, but the golden age was just around the corner; by 1951 there were 820 drive-ins and in 1958 close to 5000, though this development came at a cost: in that same year a similar number of indoor cinemas closed their doors.
The growing number of young children and families in 1950s America who were living in suburbia and filling these drive-ins were catered to in every way possible. Drive-ins were known as nice family places – for a mainly white, aspirant middle class, it has to be said. There was some concern about stories and rumours of various amorous activities taking place in the back seats of cars – made evident by the steaming up of windows – but it was not until these baby-boomers emerged from their cocoons and became that culturally and economically distinct market group, the teenager, that things really hotted up – both on and off-screen. It was also at this time that a number of new factors entered into the cinematic equation. The major studios had always resisted distributing first run films to drive-ins and reserved them for the ‘classier’ cinemas in town centres. But by the late 1950s and early 1960s seismic cultural shifts were occurring which changed the face of the industry, among which may be noted the challenges hurled at Hollywood from television, the more liberal sexual content of European (often dubious) ‘art-house’ films, publications like Playboy magazine, challenges to censorship laws, more relaxed attitudes to sexuality, and of especial significance for drive-in owners: the raging hormones of 16-18-year-olds. Affluent enough to drive their own jalopies around and to control their own social lives, they had one big problem – where to go out on a date that was (superficially) acceptable to parents yet provided good cover for the more frisky pursuits of adolescent affection (lust). Thus did the ‘sin pit’ designation of back-row indoor cinemas morph into the ‘passion pit’ designation for drive-ins. And most crucially and importantly to all of these factors was the development of a market niche which the big studios were slow to react to: the low-budget teen’sploitation film, into whose eventual canon masters such as Roger Corman, Samuel Arkoff, and Herschell Gordon Lewis were operating. As the 60s moved on, drive-in film cycles and sub-genres popped up in these shady venues like transgressive mushrooms: biker flicks, rebel flicks, bad girl flicks, JD flicks, beach party flicks, nudie flicks, rock ‘n’ roll flicks, women in prison/caged women flicks, and later the counter-culture flicks featuring anti-heroes and student activists (always an obligatory reefer rolling scene), psychedelic flicks, and gore fest flicks – all this and they were often screened in dawn till dusk marathons; which is how, dear reader, the present writer of this piece came to know all about the de Sades, the Phibes, the Captain Americas, the Ilsas, the Emmanuelles, the Gidgets and the Shafts of this world, alongside gaining – after many futile and frankly fumbled attempts – some modest mastery of the complex ergonomics of the bra strap clasp, a skill which seemed then to rank alongside any kinaesthetic feat of Houdini’s.
This period (60s to mid-70s) was in fact the high cultural and historic cinematic watershed of the drive-in theatre, in spite of the fact that profits weren’t quite as good as in the 1950s, in spite of the fact that the incorporation of daylight saving time was forcing back starting times, in spite of the fact that the rival indoor cinemas (soon to be multiplexes) were improving their facilities and offerings. And it was likewise the golden age of the drive-in film. Roger Corman himself was involved with the production of some 200 movies, and a quick glance at books like Cult Flicks & Trash Pics or Slimetime: a Gudie to Sleazy Mindless Movies will provide plenty of other choice examples.
But then came the crash: with ever-diminishing returns, desperate drive-in managers moved from exploitation films to screening XXX and porno films thus alienating many audiences and outraging neighbourhoods – it was said that car accidents were caused by drivers gawping at the giant roadside screens and that people were subject to 40-foot-high fornication scenes from their home windows. Added to this, fuel crises, the baby-boomers distaste for suburban life and the consequent return to inner city dwelling, and the dampened enthusiasm for the novelty of alfresco movies all contributed to the fall of the drive-in. The hearty drive-in owner soldiered on, but from a peak of 5000 screens in 1958, there were only 1500 in 1988 and less than 500 in 2000 (Sources of all figures from The Drive-In Theatre History Page). But the final nails in the coffin came with VCRs, cable channels and the massive sell-offs of drive-in properties, whose value had sky-rocketed as suburban malls, retail superstores and drive-in eateries swallowed up the out-of-town areas.
A few drive-in theatres still operate but the rest are cultural dinosaurs; rotting brick-and-wood behemoths hidden behind overgrown greenery and trees, unlisted architectural monuments to a period in American cultural and social history where cars, movies and making out were a kind of youthful holy trinity. But as Joe Bob Briggs writes, ‘They can burn us up. They can knock us down. But they can’t close the drive-in in our heart.’
So let’s all raise a CHILLING! BLOODY! BEASTLY! TERRIFYING!, NAKED! 75th ANNIVERSARY drink to that great genius of cinematic innovation, Richard Hollingshead, Jr.
James B Evans