Though they were spread out across the country in towns large and small, when you think about it, they came and went in the blink of an eye — an innovation that existed for a brief moment in time, brought about by a unique and fortuitous confluence of art, ingenuity, prosperity and, of course, the combustible engine.
It’s the drive-in movie theater, a uniquely American construct and an enduring component of many a Baby Boomer’s childhood. Though there are still some scattered drive-ins operating around the country, the true era of the drive-in came in the post-war years when disposable income and the average number of kids per household rose like Sputnik into the great unknown.
And for good reason. I mean, who wants to take all those crying and complaining booming babies to a traditional movie theater? My parents certainly didn’t, which is why the drive-in was a constant double feature of my own childhood.
As the youngest of five kids growing up in Dayton, Ohio in the ‘60s, I was fortunate enough to be born right in the sweet spot of the American drive-in, both in terms of geography and timing. By the late 1940s, more than 25 percent of the nation’s drive-ins were in Ohio, and a decade later, the Dayton area had more drive-ins per capita than any other city in the world.
I think at one time or another, I was at every one of those theaters — from my earliest recollection of the Melody 49 watching from the front seat curled up on my mother’s lap, to my less than wholesome teenage years at Southland 75 (why is it drive-ins are named after the highways that run alongside them?) when the experience meant borrowing my parents Plymouth Satellite, bringing a cooler filled with beer and hanging out with the bad boys three cars over. And even now, going back to my hometown with my own daughter in tow inevitably includes at least one visit to the handful of drive-ins that still operate around Dayton.
The first movie I can honestly remember seeing at the drive-in was “Yours, Mine and Ours,” the 1968 film starring Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda as a pair of single parents, both widowed, each with a boatload of kids who fall in love and get married. I saw it in my pajamas, and I recall it was a swell picture (I mean, who wouldn’t want 18 kids?) even though I fell asleep in the back of the station wagon long before the wedding scene.
Even today, in my mind I can still conjure the scent of the nearby cornfields on those hot, hazy, humid, midwestern July evenings, the last hint of pink sky hanging visible on the western horizon. As the crickets and cicadas whirred, the first frames of film would flicker to life on the massive screen. Hundreds of free-range kids on the playground beneath the screen would holler in unison, “The movie’s starting!” and run for their cars as animated hot dogs sauntered jauntily across the screen, imitating their strides. Inevitably, one or two of those kids would get lost, unable to find their parents in a sea of identical late model wood-paneled Country Squires. That’s when the booming, much too loud voice of the announcer would come over the metal speaker hanging on the window’s edge, telling mom and dad they could pick up Susie or Michael at the snack bar. I met a lot of kids on those playgrounds — kids who I thought I’d be friends with forever. Sometimes, our mothers would exchange phone numbers. Of course, once we were in the comfort of our own cars, we’d never see each other again.
Then, by my last year in high school, even I could see that, for the drive-in, the end was near. As land values rose, development encroached, malls were built, bright lights installed and highways expanded. It became increasingly harder to hear, much less see the films under those conditions.
But it wasn’t just land values, suburban sprawl and light pollution that killed the drive-in. Believe it or not, it was also Daylight Saving Time which became federal law in 1966. After the clocks began springing forward each April, it didn’t get really dark until well past 10 p.m., especially in Dayton which sits at the western edge of the eastern time zone. That spelled the end of the family-friendly feature film.
That’s probably why some drive-ins in my hometown started showing X-rated films, including the Skyborn Theatre (aka the Skyporn) which was situated close enough to Wright Patterson Air Force Base that landing pilots must’ve gotten an eyeful. Other drive-ins resorted to promoting “dusk to dawn” marathons or installed a second screen to show two movies at once in order to increase revenue.
But it wasn’t enough. One by one, the theaters closed down for good. Ironically, the industry’s downfall coincided with the end of my own drive-in days as I headed off to college and then to adult life in big cities where I didn’t own a car and wouldn’t know where to find a drive-in if I wanted to.
Now ironically, in this era of COVID-19, the drive-in is back. This summer, both the Sag Harbor Cinema and HamptonsFilm are offering drive-in experiences (at Sag Harbor’s Havens Beach and the Hayground School in Bridgehampton, respectively) using inflatable screens and your own car radio for sound.
So just for old-time’s sake, I took my daughter, now 19, to Havens Beach a couple weeks back to see “Grease.” Not my favorite film, for the record, but the convertible top was down, we had plenty of popcorn to keep us happy and we knew every word to every song. While it’s true I couldn’t smell the corn fields from where we sat, I could detect the salty scent of the nearby bay.
And you know what? It wasn’t a bad second feature.
AT THE DRIVE-IN
The Hamptons Drive-In Theatre opened in July 1955 and was located on the site of what is now the Bridgehampton Commons shopping plaza. Fans of the drive-in recall that the screen sat about where King Kullen is today. Built by Prudential Theatres and operated later by United Artist Theatres, it closed in 1983 to make way for expansion of the shopping center.
In August 2010, Hank deCillia, a longtime Bridgehampton resident who worked at the drive-in, wrote a column for The Sag Harbor Express in which he shared his memories of the old theater.
“I worked two summers for retired NYPD Officer Frank Gilligan at the Hamptons Drive-In movie theater in Bridgehampton,” wrote deCillia, “parking fancy cars for the rich women who couldn’t get into their spaces, repairing speakers ripped out when people left them in their car after the show was over, working in the concessions stand during the intermission between features, mowing the lawn around the parking area, and, best of all, changing the sign out front on the Montauk Highway every week when the new movies arrived.
“Every night, Frank would have me open the back exit to let in the sharecroppers who would walk in with blankets and take the back row, putting the speakers on the ground because they didn’t have cars.”
About the painting “Hampton’s Drive-In,” 1974, by Howard Kanovitz
“The use of photographs as an abstraction of the three-dimensional world is a starting point for paintings by American photorealist pioneer Howard Kanovitz, who began visiting Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline on the South Fork in the 1950s, and lived in Southampton from 1995 until his death in 2009,” explains Alicia Longwell, chief curator at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill.
“One sunny but cool day in 1972, Kanovitz set out from his Second Avenue studio in New York City to drive to Long Island: ‘… Gonna paint a picture but first we have to take some pictures.’
“Pulling over to the shoulder of the road at the Hamptons Drive-In, Kanovitz photographed the expanse of the drive-in, later painting a picture that captured the fading light at dusk — the very moment before the movie comes on. Now a nostalgic look at a part of East End history, Kanovitz captures an iconic part of East End history.”