Among the many examples of disappearing Baby Boomer culture, few stand out as obvious as the demise of drive-in movie theaters. Once an important component of the film industry, and a popular choice for family fun and teenage hijinks, drive-ins have almost vanished from our landscape. Unlike hula-hoops or 8-track tape players, drive-ins were neither a short lived fad nor a piece of technology that quickly became outdated…drive-ins were around before most of us were, and lasted well into our adulthood. Although they are practically gone, they did leave all of us with plenty of personal memories, and maybe even with a sense of loss.
The advent of the drive-in movie theater goes back to 1932 when Richard Hollingshead came up with an idea which would combine American’s love of movies with their love of cars. Working out of his backyard, Hollingshead, nailing a white bedsheet to a tree and placing a Kodak film projector on the hood of his car, came up with the prototype from which he would create the first outdoor movie theater. On June 6, 1933 in Pennsauken Township, New Jersey, America’s first drive-in theater opened for business. With room for 400 cars, a snack bar and a 30-foot high, 40-foot wide screen, customers paid 25 cents to see “Wives Beware.” That night, an industry was born.
It wasn’t long before a few more drive-ins began popping up around the country, including California, where in Los Angeles, the first drive-in in the state, the Pico, opened its gates in September of 1934. The original appeal of the drive-in theater was the idea of families being able to bring crying babies and noisy children to a film without bothering other patrons, in addition to saving the cost of a babysitter. But it wasn’t long before young adults and teenagers realized that being legally parked at a drive-in provided enough privacy for all kinds of human interaction. Soon, drive-in movie theaters became known as “passion pits,” and were the bane of concerned parents throughout the land.
It was during the late 1940’s, during the first wave of Baby Boomer births, that the concept of drive-in movie theaters really began to catch on. Families started fleeing to the suburbs, where land was cheap and plentiful. Soon, cow pastures, corn fields and apple orchards were being converted into drive-ins, holding anywhere from 500 to 2,000 autos. From 1946 to the end of the decade, the number of drive-ins grew from roughly 100 to 1,000. The first drive-in built in San Mateo County was Palo Alto’s Peninsula Drive-In, which was completed in 1947, followed by Belmont’s Starlite, which opened the following year. Within a few years, the Peninsula was home to about a dozen drive-in theaters, including the El Rancho (Daly City), the Redwood (Redwood City), the Spruce (South San Francisco) and the Mission (Colma).
As a business model, drive-ins had a few inherent problems. First, they could only operate after dark, which meant many hours of daytime downtime. Some locations solved this by using the drive-in lots for swap-meets and flea-markets. Another problem was unpaid admissions, as many young film lovers became proficient at performing the circus clown car routine, and would stuff kids below the backseat and in the trunk in numbers far exceeding the suggested capacity. And, of course, there was the problem of having a screen big enough to be seen well beyond to confines of the theater. My friend John Arnolfo tells me that his dad found a street in Daly City that provided an ample view of the El Rancho Drive-In’s screen, and was able to provide free, if silent, movies for his family. Ken Nichols had a friend whose Belmont house was only a block away from the Starlite, and enjoyed films for years without having to go any further than his backyard. Then there was Scott Anderson who late at night would ride his bike a mile to his local drive-in, hop the fence, and nestle up to a speaker with a sleeping bag…hey, where there’s a will.
My first drive-in movie experiences came during the late 1950’s at the El Rancho, which the Daley family considered the “Rolls Royce” of the Peninsula drive-ins. Usually attending a double-feature, our parents would have us dress in our pajamas, in a pathetic act of hope that we would fall asleep at some point…fat chance of that when there was always the possibility of popcorn, candy or soda to be had. Sitting in the back of our station wagon was a big minus for me, not because of the poor movie viewing from there, but because of the infrequency of any treats being passed to that part of the car.
A real game changer occurred in 1965 when the Burlingame Drive-In opened in the area between the 101 freeway and Airport Blvd. Complete with two giant screens, 1500 parking spaces and space-age themed architecture, the Burlingame became the “go to” drive-in for many years. Although I was over the age of 12 by then, my parents still insisted that I wear pajamas in order to convince ticket-takers that I still qualified for the child rate. It was at the Burlingame that I finally was old enough to take a girl to a drive-in, but any chance of romance was short circuited when my date, Mindy Shumway, fell asleep during the film “Airport.” At least I saved money on popcorn.
But by the 1970’s, the drive-in boom started to recede. Drive-ins were now getting competition from home entertainment choices including cable television and VCR’s. Some drive-ins tried to stem the tide by offering specific genres like horror movies or biker films. The Burlingame Drive-In experimented with soft-porn in the late 1970’s, but it became a problem, as the screens could be seen from the freeway, which was an obvious distraction.
Soon, the real estate occupied by drive-ins became too valuable for a dying industry, and during the last decade of the 20th Century, drive-in movie theaters began closing all over the countryside. In more than a few cases, the big screens would stay intact for many months, fittingly resembling giant tombstones scattered across the landscape. In 1959, considered the peak of the drive-in movie craze, there were over 5,000 of them in the United States, representing 25% of the entire movie theater business. By 2013, drive-in movie theaters accounted for about 1% of the country’s movie screens, with less than 400 in operation.
In 2003, the Burlingame Drive-In shut its gates for the last time. Although I had not been there for many years, I had never got over the habit of checking the Burlingame’s billboard as I drove by, to see what was playing, or trying to make out what was on the screen as I went by at night. Would I still attend drive-in movies if they were available? I doesn’t matter, I miss them anyway.
Note: The first drive-in theaters relied on outdoor speakers to provide the sound for the assembled automobiles…The individual speakers with volume control knobs were developed by RCA, and became available in 1941.