Drive-In Theatres Provided Movies Under the Stars

It is 7:00 pm on a balmy July 7, 1953 Tuesday evening in Johnson City. The four members of the John Doe family have decided to attend a local drive-in movie, having several motion picture choices:

Van Johnson and Paul Douglas in “When In Rome” at Family Drive-In, John Derrek and Donna Reed in ‘Saturday’s Hero” at Tri-City Drive-in, Anthony Dexter and Eleanor Parker in ‘Valentino’ at Twin-City Drive-In, and Edmond O’Brien and Joanne Dru in ‘711 Ocean Drive” at King Springs Drive-In.

They choose the Family Drive-In with two nightly showings, 8:45 and 10:45, opting for the earlier one. The ticket booth attendant charges them $1.25 (a quarter per person and a quarter per vehicle), giving little thought to anyone hiding in their trunk, an occurrence commonplace with the younger crowd.

Upon entering the establishment, the Does search for the most favorable viewing location, directly in front of the big screen without being too close or too far from it. They next remove the gray-colored speaker box from the outside post and hang it on the driver’s side window. Just prior to the start of the movie and while it is still light, the Doe children visit the playground and stop by the concession stand before returning to their vehicle. The family is now ready to enjoy, “When In Rome.”

About halfway into the picture, an intermission “trailer” comes on the big screen, further enticing people to visit the snack bar: “It’s Intermission Time, Folks. Time For a Delicious Snack in Our Sparkling Refreshment Building.”

Drive-in movies had good and bad aspects to them. On the positive side, patrons could enjoy a motion picture in the privacy of their automobile. That meant making it a family affair, talking and eating without disturbing others around them. Those who owned convertibles could let the top down and literally enjoy movies under the stars.

On the negative side, drive-ins featured mostly second-run movies that required total darkness, yielding a picture quality inferior to that found at indoor theatres. Also, customers had to contend with bugs in the summer and chilly air in the winter, prompting some theatres to issue small heaters for patron use. The speaker’s monophonic sound quality was poor with just one knob for level control. People would sometimes intentionally or inadvertently drive off with the speaker still attached to their vehicles, leaving a snapped cord dangling behind. This prompted theatre management to flash these words on the screen before customers left: “Please Remember to Replace the Speaker on the Post When You Leave the Theatre.”

At the conclusion of the first showing, there was a flurry of activity, as patrons began leaving the premises, making room for those coming to the second showing.

Drive-in theatres began with just a handful of establishments in 1933 and peaked at 5000 in 1955. Their demise occurred in 1980, victimized by cable television and VCRs. Today, fewer than 900 are still in operation for diehard nostalgists. Many of the old drive-ins have been razed for urbanization. A few sit idly with dilapidated decomposing buildings, cracking discolored asphalt, waist high weeds and a screen either gone or falling apart.

Fortunately, some establishments have been reopened, preserving this unique film genre and allowing a new generation of moviegoers to enjoy cinemas “under the stars.”