In the days before the VCR, video rentals, and streaming movies, drive-in theaters were all the rage from the early 1930s to the 1970s. In the ’50s parents would bundle their pajamaed kids into the back of the car and hopefully they would be asleep before the end of the evening. The big advantage of drive-ins at this time was that the kids could be as disruptive as they chose, and no one would care. When the kids grew up in the ’60s and became teenagers, they went to the drive-in to get away from their parents and hopefully do some heavy petting.
There were lots of steamed-up car windows back then. Before World War II, there were only about 100 drive-in screens in the US. But after the war, at the height of the drive-in movie fad, there were some 4,000 drive-ins spread across the United States. By the 1980s, however, fewer than 200 screens survived—although a slight nostalgia-driven revival followed. In 2013, drive-ins comprised only 1.5% of movie screens in the United States, with 389 theaters in operation. Compare this with the industry’s height, when about 25% of the nation’s movie screens had been in a drive-in.
From the beginning, drive-in theaters were a mom-and-pop business that relied on concession food sales and changing gimmickry like playgrounds, aircraft landing fields, pony rides, daytime flea markets, wading pools, and even porn. The movies themselves were old if they were “A” movies, and first-run if they were “B” fare. Cheesy films and drive-ins have always been attached at the hip.
That is a part of their enduring appeal.
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