Drive-in movies turn 80, but their days may be numbered

CIMG0121The world’s first drive-in movie theater opened 80 years ago on Thursday. According to, 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.

Taking pictures of the kids when they’re not looking

I take a lot of pictures of the kids, too many, probably, but most of them aren’t anything special. One or both of them is standing there, standing still, posing, or they’re making a funny face or giving each other rabbit ears, or they’re holding up a hand to block the lens, like they’re a movie star and I’m a paparazzo.

That’s why I like this picture of Thing 2, who’s 6.

We were on vacation, and at that moment, his mind was someplace else. He wasn’t posing. He wasn’t being silly. He was just being himself. I noticed the moment, leaned over the rail and took a picture. Once he realized I was there, he posed for a proper picture, but it wasn’t the same. He wasn’t being himself. 

Of the hundreds of pictures I have of him at 6, this crooked, slightly out-of-focus snapshot may be the best.



Summer checklist: See a movie at the drive-in

Google says today is the anniversary of the 1st drive-in movie theater, in Pennsauken, New Jersey.

Used to, every town had a drive-in. Now, you’re lucky to live within an hour’s drive of one.

This summer, do yourself a favor and take the drive.

Our closest drive-in is 45 minutes away. The first time we went, a couple summers ago, we tried to lower the kids’ expectations. We warned them the picture would be darker and muddier than the movies we watch at home, and it wouldn’t be 3D. We explained that at a drive-in, the sound comes from the radio or, if you’re lucky, a crappy speaker than hangs on the front-seat window. Insects, frogs and cars passing on the highway would be closest we’d get to surround sound.

We got there around 7:30. We worried we’d have trouble finding a place to park, but it wasn’t too crowded, and we found a spot on the front row. We also worried that the drive-in would be a passion pit, but the movie was “Shrek Forever After,” so it was mostly families.

I’d forgotten this, but at a drive-in, there’s a big field between the first row of cars and the screen, and kids play there before the movie starts. While a bunch of kids played football, Thing 1 and I played catch — until Thing 2 decided to turn it into a game of monkey in the middle and took off with the ball).

When it got dark, we settled into our lawn chairs at dusk, and around 8:30, the movie started.

Thing 1 wanted to make an ice cream run about 30 minutes in, but other than that, the kids weren’t too fidgety. No one complained about the murky picture or the heat or the bugs.

When it was over, we waited while a guy used our jumper cables to start his truck, and then we headed home. Thing 2 was asleep before we reached the highway.

“That was good,” Thing 1 said. She sounded sleepy.

What was good? I asked. The movie or just going to a drive-in?

“Everything,” she said.