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At the Drive In
An American icon still survives in Northern Indiana
By Gloria Diaz
Fort Wayne Reader
It's summertime in Indiana.
I'm riding on U.S. 30, not quite into the sunset. It's a perfect day, weatherwise. I'm riding with a friend, chatting about this and that, headed towards sightseeing and fun in northern Indiana. My friend's eyesight isn't so great, so I don't think she is as bothered by the bug carcasses and dirt on her windshield as I am. I don't say anything about it.
We stop at a gas station, and without a word, I pull out the squeegee that is standard issue right beside the pumps. I hope the blue fluid it's soaking in is cleaner than the windshield. I scrub away at the glass, and being the perfectionist I am, I even pull the rubber blade across, ensuring there are no streaks or drops. We get back on the highway, and the world is clearer, brighter.
We turn off U.S. 30 and head north, through a small town, and beyond. To our right, a small building with an overhang is our final destination. We pull in and hand a young man some money. It's still light out, so we walk around, take pictures. There's not many of these places left. We step in another small building and buy snacks. We walk back to the car, and I notice an absolutely beautiful vehicle. I chat with the owner, compliment him on his ride, and take pictures. Excited, I walk back to my friend. We talk some more and settle into the car and start eating.
It's summertime in Indiana. It's time to go to the drive in.
The first drive-in opened in Camden, New Jersey, back in 1933. Richard M. Hollingshead Jr., debuted his invention on the evening of June 6, shortly after receiving his patent, and investing $30,000 depression-era dollars into his idea. Hollingshead thought about the reasons why people didn't go to movies. Aside from that pesky economic downer the Great Depression, he realized that people didn't want to dress up and hire a babysitter for an evening's entertainment, since the idea of wearing pajamas in public was decades away. A drive-in was ideal family entertainment, and besides the initial investment, theater owners had to budget for other attractions besides the celluloid ones. Food, comfort, and playgrounds for the little ones. Maybe even an occasional circus act, dog and pony show or an actual honest-to-God primate exhibit called Monkey Village. Ya gotta have a gimmick.
Ironically, one of the problems with drive-ins was the entertainment itself. In a soon-to-be car crazy nation, Hollingshead Jr.'s drive-in seemed like a great idea. But drive-in owners weren't exactly showing Oscar-winning features. Usually the fare was B-movies, and in some cases, government films. The reason for this was in the early days, indoor theaters were owned by the studios. Those businesses saw drive-ins not as their outdoor kin, but a flat-out threat. So drive-in owners were competing with Hollywood-owned theaters to get first-run films. Drive-in owners knew it was the novel environment, and not a dusk-to-dawn triple feature of The Tingler, It Came From Beneath the Sea, or Problems in Supervision: Supervising Women Workers that brought in business.
Thwarted from getting first-run movies, drive-in owners resorted to other reasons to keep the people coming back. Car washes, bottle warming tables, oil changes, laundry service, and grocery shopping were just a few of the amenities offered to keep the customers returning.
Those amenities no longer exist. Depending on the location, drive-in theater owners might do special theme nights or giveaways, but you'll have to take care of your own laundry and wash your car before you get there. But for some people, that stuff doesn't matter, if it never did. Going to the drive-in today is something people do because they did it when it was younger. Whether it's a way to relive the past, or enjoy a beautiful summer night, it's still about the experience.
Terry Frank, Debbie Frank, and granddaughter Madison Hart of Leesburg pulled into the Tri-Way Drive-In driving a cherry red 1969 Ranchero that Terry had modified for prime outdoor movie watching. Amid the more current, boring fiberglass vehicles nearby, the Ranchero was practically blaring the soundtrack to American Graffiti without making a sound.
Debbie says of the drive-in, “it's nostalgic. “My mom brought us in our pjs, and we'd go play on the playground, and all the other kids were in their pajamas.”
When asked if they are drive-in regulars, Debbie says, “we try to be.” The Tri-Way is about an hour from their home.
Madison goes to drive-ins with her mother and her grandparents. She's experiencing something that most of her peers have not. “A lot of my friends say they never have [been to a drive-in]. A lot of people I think don't know that there still are drive-ins. We're lucky because we have a lot in this area.”
And we do. In northern Indiana, there are five drive-ins about an hour and fifteen minutes from Fort Wayne. A sixth one, in Knox, is probably an hour and a half to two hours away.
Terry knew the potential of the car to be the ultimate drive-in theater ride. Not quite a pick-up truck, but with more horizontal space than your typical car, he customized it with portable speakers for optimal sound.
“I had the seat made in the back. It's ideal for drive-in theaters. It's the same color, same design.” It also has seat belts.
The car originally belonged to a neighbor. Frank says, “my neighbor had it many, many years ago, and I used it more than he did. But he passed away, and I asked if anyone in the family wanted it, and nobody wanted it, so I bought it.” The Franks still socialize with the neighbor's widow, who's 103, taking her out for dinner and occasional ice cream. Debbie says the widow still gets a kick out of riding in the car her husband used to own, which looks showroom new.
According to Cinema Under the Stars, the drive-in movie theater design hasn't changed, unlike other innovations. “While most roadside building types evolved gradually, the drive-in was deliberately invented. It took shape from a single prototype and—except for some technical improvements and minor variations in plan, construction and decoration—has remained basically unchanged in form and function for half a century,” says Chester Liebs, from his 1985 book, Main Street to Miracle Mile, American Roadside Architecture.
I saw it for myself. If you want a time travel experience, go to a drive-in. The poles that held the speakers are sometimes still there, perhaps as a reminder that one of the main challenges of running a drive-in theater was getting the sound right. Several options were tried, from speakers blasting the sound directly at the car, to in-ground speakers directly below the cars. One method allowed the projectionist to control each row of speakers. A co-worker could alert the projectionist of a passing train or loud truck, and he could turn up the volume until the vehicle passed. Such a sophisticated system cost $5,000. It wasn't until RCA came up with the iconic speaker on a pole, which allowed each car to have in-car sound (even though it was tinny) that wouldn't bother those living next door (or a few miles away) from the theater. These days, you tune in the screen's frequency on your factory-installed stereo system using technology theater owners could only dream about back in the day.
The ticket offices, concession stands and projection booths are made out of cinder block or concrete. Your food choices are listed on Pepsi or Coke-logoed lightboxes, with black letters and numbers that slide in on plastic tracks. The signs for the restrooms are sometimes marked “Ladies”, not “Women.” Concessions still have the staples of popcorn, soda, hot dogs and candy, but a variety of sandwiches are available, as well as french fries and onion rings. Modern fare includes smoothies and cappucinos, bosco sticks, deep-fried corn dogs and chicken tenders. Healthy eating doesn't seem to have reached the drive-ins, but that's okay. In the 1950s, a once a week orgy of grease and carbs wouldn't make anyone obese, but that's because it was just that—a once a week treat instead of available every 100 feet on nearly every street in town.
Katielyn Krepps, shift manager at Huntington's drive-in, says Goodrich Quality Theaters, which owns the Huntington 7, bought the drive-in, which is now Goodrich Huntington Twin Drive-In. Shortly after she started working at Goodrich, she offered to work at the outdoor location. She says the biggest difference between working for an indoor theater vs. a drive-in is time.
“You go through sets,” says Krepps. “There's a block of time, where all of your movies start usually one right after the other, so the flood of people come in, we get them through box office, through concessions, and they're sitting in the auditorium. Then we have time to clean up concessions. Where here, the movies start at the exact same time, concessions is almost constantly busy. If we have downtime, it's about ten to fifteen minutes, then intermission will hit.”
Working the concession stand is literally a hot job. There's no air conditioning in the building. “The summers out here are incredibly hot,” notes Krepps. Hydration is very important, and Krepps says there are drink breaks, (water is encouraged) so no one has to end up at the hospital.
The high point for drive-ins was probably in 1958. Progress, or technology, seemed to be throwing boulders in the paths of outdoor theaters, starting in the early 60s. Alaskan drive-ins thrived, particularly because of the long nights which meant theater owners, according to The American Drive-In Movie Theater could run six or seven movies at a time. The auto industry was starting to make smaller cars, and because of that, people weren't as keen to watch a movie in a car that had bucket seats and a gearshift dividing them. More and more people owned television sets, and the novelty of watching a movie in a car was wearing thin. One enterprising drive-in owner decided to combine lodging with entertainment, and the Best Western Movie Manor was born in Monte Vista, Colorado, and is still operating. Guests can watch movies on the big screen, from April to mid-September.
And there's the government. Daylight savings time, pushing back movie start times to 9:30 p.m. or later, doesn't help if there's a day job to go to the next day. That's part of the reason some drive-ins operate weekends only.
Other theaters resorted to fare that brought in the customers, but wasn't exactly family friendly. Porn and soft-core porn flipped the drive-ins image of wholesome family fun into that of the enemy. In The American Drive-In Theater, owner Herb Snow says, “I don't play those R-rated films because I personally want to watch them. I'm in business for economics. I'm showing them to make a dollar. I've sat through one X-rated movie and I don't care to see another one again.”
If owners were lucky, they were able to schedule a movie star to come visit the drive-in the opening night of the film. Others thought of creative ways to bring customers in. Blazing Saddles, for instance, made its world premiere at Pickwick Drive-In, and was billed as a horse-only event. Warner Brother's publicity man, Marty Weiser, wanted to have the premiere in a place that related to the movie in some way. Weiser publicized the one-time only event in the numerous stables close to the theater, and opening night, it was packed. It remains one of the best publicity stunts in Warner Brothers history.
Drive-ins in Calfornia started running quality Spanish-language films. Some theaters came up with a delicious food item that was only available at the snack bar. The Chihuahua, sold by the Sky-Vue Drive-In in LaMesa, Texas, was so successful, a separate booth was built at the front of the theater so people could stop by and purchase them even if they didn't plan on seeing a movie that night.
Swap meets were another way to keep the money coming in. Robert Schuller started preaching at a drive-in.
Drive-ins seem to have staged a bit of a comeback—of sorts. But there's always something.
Drive-ins now show first run movies. And technology has hit drive-ins with yet another expense: digital projection. The Tri-Way Drive-In in Plymouth converted to digital projectors in 2015, at a cost of $300,000. A recent story by WNDU says the theater is on the verge of closing for good. Owner David Kinney says he has two and a half more years to come up with the rest of the money, $150,000.
“Since we're only open six months out of the year, it's touch and go,” he says.
And then, there's Hollywood. Never a friend of drive-ins from the get go, it's still causing problems. This time, it's Disney. WNDU reported in May that the Tri-Way joined other drive-ins by refusing to show Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 because Disney wanted too much money and control. The Tri-Way posted this message on their Facebook page:
Dear Fellow Drive In Enthusiasts,
Many of you have reached out to inquire as to why we’ve decided not to play Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. While we know that you may be disappointed (we are too!), we have agreed to stand up against the rising demands of Disney and support Drive Ins across the county that simply cannot afford to play this film at their demanding terms. We see a few Drive-Ins permanently close every year and it’s certainly not because they are making too much money. Film Studios, as many of you already know, receive the large majority of each ticket sale; but even still, Disney felt the need to once again increase their take on those sales. Banding together with many other Drive In movie theatres across the country, the Tri-Way Drive In is refusing these terms and taking a stand in support of the Drive In community as a whole. If and when Disney decides to come back down to Earth with their terms then we will gladly play Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 at a future date here at the Tri-Way. This decision isn’t however about the Tri-Way Drive In, or this weekend’s attendance, or even Guardians of the Galaxy… This decision is about the future of Drive Ins and keeping one of America’s great past times safe for many years to come. We do try our hardest to bring in the best Hollywood has to offer every week and we will continue to do so; But we hope you understand our decision on this one and we sure appreciate your continued support, thank you.
According to WNDU, Disney wanted an extra 15% over what they normally got, and also wanted longer run times, and wanted to chose the co-features.
Time will tell if the drive-in will survive. Innovations by theater owners need to be inexpensive money-makers. Not everyone can afford to build a hotel around their screen. Liability concerns are yet another boulder in owner's paths, which is probably why there won't be any swimming pools at drive-ins anytime soon.
Concessions are the biggest money-maker, which is why some theaters disallow outside food from being brought in. At one theater, a food-and-beverage permit is required for food brought in. Half the ticket sales go back to the studios. It's always something.
But the drive-in is uniquely American. It's been tried in other countries, but just never took off. The numbers are way down from the heyday of drive-ins, but being able to stretch your legs during the movie and still be able to watch it is something you just can't do in a multiplex.
It's the best time of the year, summer. Things seem easier. There's no bundling up to go outdoors. A cool breeze gets your attention. You want to be outside, doing something, even if it's as simple as watching a movie. It's easier to meet people at a drive-in. Especially if they have a cool car as a conversation starter.
It's three hours from sunset. It's summertime in Indiana.
Time to go to the drive-in.