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The Rise and Demise of Drive-In Movies

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or 8-track tape players, drive-ins were neither a short lived fad nor a piece of technology that quickly became outdated…drive-ins were around before most of us were, and lasted well into our adulthood.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.

drive-inMy 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.

25 thoughts on “The Rise and Demise of Drive-In Movies”

  1. Great trip down Memory Lane. My first drive-in movie theater was also the El Rancho. Once in awhile we did leave Westlake for a family outing. That drive-in always creeped me out because the first movie I saw there was The House on the Haunted Hill. Maybe it also had something to do with Holy Cross being so close~
    Thank Bri

  2. I remember the Geneva Drive-In next to the Cow Palace…It was a former Dog-Racing track…the old grandstand was still there.

  3. Don Dowling’s Pontiac Bonneville (I think that’s what it was) had the biggest trunk, so he was usually the designated driver. The drive in theaters caught on very quickly though and started checking the trunks of all cars driven by any guy who appeared to be 18 or younger. It was good for a laugh when you were in line behind a car that was forced to open their trunk and watch 4 or 5 guys climb out. I also remember that there always seemed to be the one car that would forget to turn off their headlights after parking, which would shine directly on to the screen because of the upward slope of the parking spaces. Great story!

      1. Brian…forgot to mention; I talked with Mindy Shumway at school a couple of days after you took her to the drive-in. She wasn’t really asleep.

  4. Hilarious trip down memory lane. Remember the middle-aged man we saw headed to the restroom in pajamas with his toothbrush?! I wonder now if he wasn’t doing it for the comic value. I remember seeing Night of the Living Dead (at the El Rancho, I think) with Dave Presta and I don’t know if it was the weed or what but the other patrons seem to lurch to the concession stand like zombies!

    1. Patrice: I remember very well the toothbrush guy…Red and white pajamas as I recall…I’ve always wondered who he came with…did he drive a car in that outfit? BTW, nice going using the word “Lurch” when describing zombie like patrons.

  5. Brian – There’s a drive in movie in the town I presently live,San Luis Obispo. Every time I drive by I get teary-eyed thinking about the amount of time that we spent with 2 small children hoping they would ultimately fall asleep so we could at least hear what was going on. Thanks for the memory. David

    1. Btw … we had something on the East coast you on the west coast probably didn’t have at drive-ins … the proverbial Florida cracker “mosquito coil”! We always had a few burning when watching a movie at the drive in.

  6. Great article, BD!! I have many fond memories of the ‘D.I.’, as we called it. Lots of making out, jugs of ‘Ripple’ wine and that big, clunky speaker that would hang on the car window. Seems like it was only yesterday. Thanks for another perfectly written trip down memory lane.

  7. One of my most memorable experiences at the drive-in was with Debbie Mattman Allustiarti. The Mattman’s and Erikson’s were great Pinehurst Court neighbors and friends, and since most of us kids were of similar ages we did a lot of activities together. One night our parents decided to take both families to the drive-in movies for a double-header. Both families drove to the Geneva Drive-In, behind the Cow Palace, but when we arrived the four parents gathered in one station wagon while all eight of us kids piled into the other station wagon. Being the oldest at ages 11 and 10, Debbie and I were in the front seat while our sisters were in the middle seat and our brothers were ensconced in the way back with blankets and pillows and expected to fall asleep. I don’t remember the first movie that was shown (Debbie probably does) but the main feature was “Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte”, and by the time it started Debbie and I were the only kids awake in our car. (Meanwhile, our parents were having a grand ol’ time in the car next to us!) It did not take long for both Debbie and I to be totally scared out of our wits. We tried to cover our eyes, and we tried to duck down in the seat to avoid seeing the screen. We turned off the sound box, but with so many other cars around us we could still hear the dialog and, even worse, the haunting soundtrack. That song still gives me goosebumps…

    Looking back on it I realize the only reason why us kids were at the drive-in to see that movie is because our parents either could not, or did not want to, hire babysitter(s) for 8 kids just so they could go the movies. As a result I was totally traumatized and still avoid gory, horror movies to this day.

    1. Gail: Love that story. With your sibs and Debbie’s, that’s a total of eight kids…I hope you guys were parked close to the concession stand…and bathrooms.

  8. My two younger sisters and I went to the drive-in with our older siblings (a condition for the use of the family car.) I remember on one occasion, being asleep and waking up to our sisters screaming because a of trailer for the Beatle movie “Help” was playing. They were excited and so were we because this meant we would get another trip to the drive-in!!

  9. A sweet nostalgic stroll down memory lane, capturing moments of my childhood and youth. Thank you, Brian

  10. Nice memories Brian!
    Lots of partying in my high school days with my friends @ the Burlingame & redwood city drive in.. We would go in the rain as well and as I remember they ended late .. Like 1am….We also tried to sneak in a few times as a friend would be in the trunk .. Or we covered up someone in the backseat!! Lol
    The good old days !!

  11. The Spruce in South City had a rear entrance that you could drive straight through without paying. It was by far the easiest place to sneak in. Just turn off your lights and there you were. As always, great work on this!

    1. Bud: I also remember a bunch of us going to the Tahoe drive-in during those great summers at the Lake Tahoe cabin…we had quite a crew.

  12. Brian, This was a particularly fine article. And I enjoyed the comments. Bringing your 10 year old to see Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte and leaving her alone in a car with her friend and a bunch of younger brothers and sisters tells me Mom and Dad knew nothing about that movie. It reminds me we often “went to the movies” not knowing what was playing or when. We certainly did that as kids at the El Camino, which was already seedy in the early ’60s. I had some double dates with Bill Nunan at the drive in during our junior year when we were both dating senior girls. These were memorable on a number of levels, but no further details will be provided here. I was always annoyed by the clunky speakers, which were hard to listen to, and by the cold and fog coming off the bay, which was what you got at the Burlingame drive-in. I have a Paul-Fisher recollection of the Burlingame drive-in ditching the speakers in favor of the soundtrack coming over an FM station, which you tuned into from your car. High tech, if the memory is true!

    1. Jeff: Is there any topic that won’t trigger a Paul Fisher story? And if Bill Nunan was part of any drive-in double date, there had to be someone trying to sneak in…unless the girls offered to pay, but even then…

  13. Great job Brian. I also remember in high school going in with a couple of guys in the trunk. As a 10 year old I talked my parents into taking me to a monster movie marathon at Belmont Drive In. I even remember one of the movies was The Alligator People, obviously a B movie of the 50’s. I’m not sure if I made it through all of them. I think there were 4 movies which probably put us somewhere around 1 or 2 in the morning, great parents.

  14. Great article- I’m a bit of a latecomer, but I love the website. I remember a bunch of us guys from the Class of ’72 converging on the Spruce for a Clint Eastwood marathon. It was movies till dawn. Not many of us went the distance, what with the price of a six pack of Bud being $1.32!

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