The world’s first drive-in movie theater opened 80 years ago on Thursday. According to History.com, Park-In Theaters opened on June 6, 1933, in Camden, New Jersey.
Drive-in theaters boomed after World War II, and by the late 1950s, there were about 5,000 of them across the country.
Two years ago, the last time the National Association of Theatre Owners counted, there were 366. This summer, there are surely fewer.
Our closest drive-in, the Hi-Way 50 Drive-In in Lewisburg, Tenn., closed after last season. We found out when we went online a couple of weeks ago to see what was playing. The website was gone, but we found a message from the owners on the theater’s Facebook page. It says they’ve retired but they’re hoping someone will buy it and reopen it.
I hope so, too, but I know it’s unlikely.
Drive-in theaters are a risky business. They’re at the mercy of the weather. No one goes to the drive-in when it’s raining, and no one goes if it’s sticky hot, either, but the owners have to pay a fee to the movie studios either way.
Hard-top theaters make money by overcharging for popcorn and Cokes, but it’s easy to bring snacks and pizzas and a cooler to the drive-in, so they don’t make a lot of money on concessions.
Drive-ins used to make money by showing second-run movies (which don’t cost nearly as much to rent as new movies on opening weekend), but VCRs and then DVDs, Blu-Ray and streaming services such as Netflix have pretty much killed the demand for second-run movies. The movies in theaters today will probably be at Redbox by the time school starts in the fall.
The latest threat to the drive-in, according to a story in The Los Angeles Times, is the shift toward digital projection. This may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. The paper says Hollywood may stop distributing 35-millimeter film prints by year’s end. Hard-top theaters have already converted, but a lot of drive-in theaters probably can’t afford the cost of a new projector. The Times puts the cost of conversion at about $70,000 per screen.
So, this summer, find the closest drive-in theater and go, and take the kids. Take a Frisbee or a ball and play in the field between the screen and the first row of cars while you wait for it to get dark enough for the movie to start. Walk to the concession stand and listen to the sound of the movie echoing from car radios and boom boxes. Take pictures.
Because this might be the last summer you have the chance.