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What Ever Happened to the Drive-In Movie Theater Culture?

Either way, the drive-in show must go on!

What Ever Happened to the Drive-In Movie Theater Culture?

The American Drive-In movie theater celebrated its 75th anniversary last week. Well, "celebrate" might not be the right word to describe this event as far fewer people trek to the drive-in today compared to the past. During its peak, drive-in theaters were all the rage. In 1958, there were approximately 5,000 American drive-ins; whereas today, there are only about 400.

The first drive-in opened June 6, 1933, in Camden, N.J. The marketing of this first drive-in helps to explain its once long-held appeal to patrons: "A place where the whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are."

And since day 1, the drive-in has embraced this mantra of being a place where young and old, quiet and loud, singles and couples, groups of friends or entire families could go and enjoy a double feature. (In some cases three distinct movies may be shown, and in most cases, the lead-in movie is shown again after the second movie.)

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Based on theater box office numbers and video rental numbers, it is clear, we still love to watch movies; but apparently, we prefer the comfort of a movie plex or our own living room. But there is something special about watching a movie outdoors, under the stars, or in some cases, under a barrage of rain. Either way, the drive-in show must go on!

I think more people should go to drive-in movies, especially those who think it is okay to use their cell phones to talk or text, or those who talk during the movie. To them, I say, "Go outdoors!"

Most drive-ins today offer recently released films, not just the "B" movies that seemed to dominate the screens of the past. I, myself, have numerous fond memories of going to the drive-ins (although I must admit, it has been a long time since I last went to a drive-in).

For example, I remember watching "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" at the drive-in when I was a teenager. I will never forget when, at the very moment the first bloody chainsaw killing was occurring, some other movie patron started up his own chainsaw (that, apparently, was in the drunk of his car)! No, he wasn't a killer, he was playing a prank. The type of prank you could not get away with today! Seems no one has a sense of humor any more, lol!

Usually, I went to the drive-in with my girlfriend. "Back in the day"-as they like to say-young couples would attend the drive-ins to make out, and yes, maybe do other things as well! On many occasions, numerous couples (who were all friends) would park their cars side-by-side and party together during the first movie, and then quietly disappear to their own cars during the second one.

Drive-ins come equipped with a snack stand filled with goodies. Then again, you could bring your own food and no one cared. The movie plexs frown upon outside food being brought into the movie theater.

The drive-in movie is really a part of American culture. It combines many of our favorite past-times, going on a date, being with friends or family, watching movies, and, of course eating.

Other countries have drive-ins as well. In June, 1999, on my first visit to Russia-I was in St. Petersburg-there was much fanfare surrounding the first drive-in to open in that former USSR nation. The English-newspaper, The St. Petersburg Times, had this front page caption: "Drive-In Movie Culture Makes Debut in Russia." The drive-in located in Moscow.

Most drive-in patrons raved about this form of American culture, even though they paid "a New York-style entrance fee of 195 rubles ($8) per person." There was one major glitch, however. Customers were told to tune their car radios to a certain frequency to pick up the soundtrack. Nothing too unusual about that, except, few Russians had car radios in those early post-USSR days. Needless to say, a number of people were frustrated with this unplanned silent movie presentation!

Although that specific drive-in has since closed, many drive-ins still operate in Russia. And, most Russian autos come with radios today, so they have closed the drive-in movie theater gap.

As I write this article, I have become even more nostalgic for the "good old days" of drive-in movies. Mmm, maybe I should see what's playing at my local drive-in (yes, there is one only a few miles away) this weekend...

 

Tim Delaney teaches sociology at SUNY Oswego. Author of such books as Simpsonology: There's A Little Bit of Springfield in all of Us! and Seinology: The Sociology of Seinfeld.

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