Remember drive-in movie theaters? If you are old enough, you probably have fond memories of those precursors to football tail-gate parties, where instead of hanging out in our cars at a football stadium, we did it at the movies. For baby boomers, going to the drive-in for a double feature was a typical family outing in the summer. Growing up in the 50s and 60s, my family were big patrons of the drive-in. As soon as it was dusk, we would load up the station wagon with toys and food and head off to the neighborhood drive-in. Before we left, my dad would spray everybody down with mosquito repellent. The dreaded culprit back then wasn’t West Nile Virus, but St. Louis Encephalitis – remember that?! The movie that was playing was almost incidental to the experience, which was, of course the attraction. If you had a cool mom, she would back up the car to the screen and open the lift gate on the station wagon so the kids could lay down on blankets and pillows and watch the movie. The parents would then sit outside on beach chairs. It was most fun when two or three families went together and you could run back and forth visiting each other’s cars.
To get a good spot, you had to leave well before the sun set.
We never cared what movie was playing mostly because you could never hear it. The metal speakers that hung off the car windows were so poor, you could barely make out the dialogue over all the scratchy static. We would always bring a car load of food and candy, probably to save money, and also because the concession food was so terrible. But, that didn’t stop us kids from begging to go buy some red hots or popcorn every 10 minutes or so.
Photographs of abandoned drive-ins portray a unique desolate beauty.
Of course, trips to the bathroom were more frequent than those needed during a church sermon. Mostly they were just another excuse to go back out to that great concession stand with its candy and greasy hamburgers and soda pops in glass bottles. Those were fun days and just thinking about them takes me right back to our ever-present station wagon with the padded “way back” that my dad always had installed, ready for our long summer road trips that we took across the country. Whatever happened to those days? Today we take planes everywhere, but back then, we drove to national parks and camping grounds. We drove all over America, so it doesn’t seem all that strange that we would also go see movies while sitting in the security of our own cars.
An abandoned drive-in ticket office.
The first drive-in was in Pennsauken Township, New Jersey – built in 1933. It cost just 25 cents a car plus 25 cents a person to get in, which was actually more expensive than an indoor movie. In order to attract customers to the new drive-ins, advertisers came up with reasons to see a movie in your car: you could smoke during the movie, you could talk as loud as you wanted without bothering anyone, and you had the freedom to eat in the privacy of your car. An even more important attraction was that sleeping babies and toddlers could be brought, bundled up in their blankets and pajamas - saving the expense of a babysitter. The earliest drive-ins didn’t have the individual speakers – there was just one booming speaker up front that most likely disturbed the surrounding neighborhood. In fact, in the early days, a lawsuit was brought in Detroit claiming the sound of the main speaker traveled over two miles!
That original drive-in in New Jersey closed within a few years and the outdoor theatre business became tied up in messy legal affairs for years. But, still, the idea slowly gained in popularity. The introduction of the in-car individual speakers in 1946 was seen as a major improvement. With the war now over and the soldiers back home, it meant hordes of new customers for the drive-ins. The baby boomer generation quickly added to those numbers. To fill the demand during the 1950s, thousands of drive-in were quickly built around the country. One remaining problem was the movie studios who felt that the drive-ins cheapened the movie going experience. Hoping to drive them out of existence, the studios kept first run films for inside theaters only. Still, by 1957, there were over 3,700 drive-ins in America alone. The genre was also popular in Australia, England and Denmark.
As the popularity of drive-ins grew, so did the experience. Many theatres incorporated amusement park rides and playgrounds, along with bigger and fancier concession stands. They also provided in-car heaters during the winter and bug spray in the summer. In the 70s, the speakers were abandoned when the sound was made available through car radios, first on the AM dial, and then later on FM.
While drive-ins were sold as wholesome family entertainment, they began to get a reputation as a place to “neck” and they were nicknamed “passion pits.” Before long sex in the cars wasn’t the only issue, but sex on the screen was. Huge images from spicy movies could be seen for miles and some churches began to object. As the popularity of drive-ins started its decline, the desperate owners began showing racier and racier films to attract more customers. The days of the pj-clad kids at drive-ins were over.
By the 1980s, drive-ins were a thing of the past – mostly due to multi cinema houses, where people had 8 to 10 movies to choose from and of course, there was now cable TV. Another often overlooked reason for the decline was the valuable real estate the drive-ins occupied. Many suburban neighborhoods sprang up around the once remote land and the urge to sell was matched by the amount the owners were paid. In the 90s, the number of theatres left standing was only 750 – a number that remains constant today. Recently, there has been a small resurgence of the family friendly drive-in. Some drive-ins have marketed themselves as a nostalgic trip back to the 50s – hosting theme nights where customers dress in costume and car shows where owners show off their remade muscle cars and hot rods.
In two towns close to Houston, there are now two new drive-ins. In 2005, the owners of the Crossroads Drive-In in Shiner constructed a new drive-in theatre, the Starlite, on Highway 59 near Kingwood. The following year, the Showboat Drive-in opened in Hockley near Tomball. For those Houstonians who are willing to make the drive, it is still possible to see a movie under the stars, just like the old days.
Cars line up two hours before showtime at The Showboat in order to get a spot.
The Showboat was built by two brothers who wanted to return to the good old days of the drive-in. Their theatre has the usual gravel drive which produces that distinctive crunching sound -- immediately bringing to mind those nights spent at the drive in, years and years ago. There are two screens and a 1950s style snack bar with video games for teenagers. The owners laugh about the kids who hide in trunks to get in free – and they say they just look the other way. Working here, they claim, is more fun than toil. Some five years in the making, the brothers call The Showboat a dream come true. Cars line up two hours before showtime for a nostalgic tailgate party and to get a good spot. On weekends, the theatre can fill up quickly – the venue is extremely popular. Go HERE for information on the Showboat drive-in.
The desire to return to the days of wholesome family fun has spurred on a new business – the home outdoor theatre. Today, you can set up your own drive-in theatre, or back yard theatre, with systems that are sold for a few thousand dollars. Other places provide the equipment as a rental for a one time party. How fun!!
Courtney, the Houston blogger of Inside the Loop, had a back yard movie party a few years ago – HERE. She sent out invitations to 25 friends, rented the popcorn machine and a big screen and set up a drinks table.
And of course, there was a candy concession stand. So cute, love the chandelier!
They rented the big screen and set it up in the backyard.
And they watched a vintage movie – Charade. Isn’t this the cutest idea ever?
By the way, Courtney now runs her own business, selling textiles from southeast Asia HERE. OK, I’m going to buy a few of her scarves!!
This family set up another back yard party – the kids sat in box cars. Too cute!
You can either buy these systems – or rent them. They cost upwards of 2 and 3 thousand dollars – so I would think renting at first would be a good way to see if you really would use it a lot. This party, above, wasn’t too concerned with the “décor” – they were more serious about the movie.
Some backyard screens are inflatable.
Of course, styling the backyard is a must – isn't this darling! Pottery Barn set up this party. They used a sheet – but a sheet isn’t really a good screen, it wrinkles and moves in the wind. Better to rent a real screen.
Design Sponge showed this cute party - the cuter the better, for sure. HERE. One blogger wrote that she set up the outdoor theatre each weekend during the summer and her kids and neighbors loved it. Such a great idea for family togetherness. We would have a problem in my family – no one would want to watch the same movie!
On Pinterest, these are really cute movie party ideas.
Here, they had a Christmas party – a good idea for someone in Florida or Texas only where the weather would be warm enough!
This family had plenty of land to set up a permanent outdoor theatre – along with a firepit. They then enclosed the entire area with logs and rocks. My sister in law should do this at her ranch. She has the space – and it would be so much fun to sit around the firepit and watch a movie. Usually, we just watch Kirk’s antics instead. ha!
Wondering why I even got interested in outdoor movies? Writing a blog involves lots of research. I’m always looking on the internet or in magazines or books for inspiration, hoping to find something to write about. Sometimes, I look for days before finding something that interests me. Lately, I’ve fallen in love in Californian Colonial Spanish houses – ala Reese Witherspoon’s ranch – and so I’ve been looking at lots of Los Angeles and Santa Barbara real estate ads. That’s how I stumbled upon a house designed by Belzberg Architects. Which lead me to Belzberg Architects web site, which then led me to THIS house:
And yes, it’s not what would usually catch my eye. Normally, I wouldn’t even take the time to study it, but…… Built in 2007, at 5800 sq. ft and located in Los Angeles, this contemporary house has two structures on the property. At the right is the main house while the garage and guest house is on the left. The house is sited to the views of downtown – which are stunning. The house has won many awards, including two from the AIA. Notice the distinctive wooden slats that covers the back side of the house and the guest house.
The house over looks the valley and further out to the coast. The doors open to make the living area an indoor-outdoor space. There’s no need for walls for art work. The views ARE the art!
Inside or outside – it’s hard to tell. If I owned this house, I would remove the centered hanging fireplace and furnish it with antiques – French and Oriental – it could be stunning with old patina woods that play against all the glass and slick surfaces. Think Saladino…a few busts or urns, here and there. A frayed, old rug. A Spanish styled dining table piled high with books….
A view at night of the pool and the long side of the façade on the right. That fireplace!
The slatted wood on the side of house creates a shadow play along the walls and floors, so interesting.
A view through the living room – wait - is that a billboard back there??
Actually, it’s a movie screen that reaches across the front of the guest house above the garage. See the two people watching the movie at the bottom right of the picture? It must be hooked up to a computer in the house because you can see the Windows application at the very bottom of the screen. Incredible! This is L.A. after all. I wonder if a studio head lives here? Underneath the screen is the garage, with the guest house beyond and above it.
The balcony seats are located right off the living room in the main house. I wonder if there is a fire pit there too? I just LOVE this! I wonder if they leave a photograph on the screen when movies aren’t playing. What photograph would you put there – or would you have a revolving choice of them?
Here you can see into the guest house on the right, with its two story living area.
The back side of the guest house is covered in the wood slats, just like the main house. The shadows must be incredible in the two story living room.
The Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust
I wasn’t familiar with Belzberg Architects, but they have quite an impressive resume, including this building, the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust which appears to grow organically out from the ground. Take a look at their web site to see more of projects, HERE. I actually found their web site when I was looking at a house that is for sale in L.A. that I particularly liked. Belzberg designed that house and I planned to show it here, but then I found the movie-screen house which led me to back yard movie parties and then to drive in movies. I know it’s a circuitous route to take to write a simple story, but there it is.
In Part Two of this story – I will show you the house for sale in L.A. It’s got a back story to it that I discovered but it was just too much to combine it with this story. So, until next time!