moviehouses were all but pronounced dead after their numbers
plummeted in the 1980s. Enthusiasts, however, believe that
the “ozoner” is finding its place in the 21st
century, and heading into an era of stability and renewed
by Alma Freeman
“Drive-ins today sit poised on the
edge of extinction,” wrote
Kerry Segrave in her 1992 book “Drive-in Theatres.” “The
last handful may be around yet for decades. A few may be
kept alive as sort of living museums, perhaps subsidized.
But they are finished as a part of the American landscape.
New ones will never be built. It is only a matter of time.”
Segrave’s book was written at the end of the worst
decade the drive-in had ever weathered. Between 1980 and
1990, the number of outdoor screens in the United States
plummeted from 3,505 to 910, and Segrave’s bleak assessment
of the ozoner’s future was typical of the era.
“Doom and gloom” was the mood, confirms United Drive-In
Theatre Owner’s Association (UDITOA) co-founder
Ask an expert what caused
the ‘80s implosion, and most
will point first to changing real estate values. When most
drive-ins were built (the majority came into being in the
late 1940s and 1950s, at the peak of America’s
love affair with the automobile), the sprawling facilities
typically situated on well-traveled highways, but also
far from large population centers, where land was cheap
During the subsequent decades, as the cities expanded
and suburbanites began building their homes within
distance of drive-ins, the many large parcels of land
beneath the drive-ins began to skyrocket in value.
Though people moving closer
to drive-ins was good for drive-in business, many drive-in
owners came to realize
could now be utilized for other businesses. Businesses
that could operate before sunset. Businesses that
throughout the winter.
The 1960s and ‘70s also saw the rise of the multiplex,
and this too spelled trouble for many outdoor cinemas. Veteran
exhibitor Russell Wintner, who operated nearly 40 drive-ins
during the 1970s (and today continues to operate the 51-year-old
Memphis Drive-In in Brooklyn, Ohio), remembers the speed
with which his company shifted its emphasis from outdoor
to indoor. New multiplexes in his markets made “driving
all the way out to a drive-in not worth it,” he says. “And
if the drive out to a drive-in wasn’t long, then that
meant that the drive-in was encroached by the community and
the land value shot up.”
Jack Loeks Theatres (JLT)
is down to its last drive-in, a quad in Muskegon, Mich.
Like so many current
and former drive-in
operators, JLT vice president of construction
Roger Lubs remembers replacing some drive-ins with indoor
and selling others off to developers. Although
he says his company
will continue to operate the Muskegon quad for
the time being, its proximity to an expanding
long-term survival unlikely.
Another factor with which
the drive-in industry had to contend was a kind of chicken-and-egg
so many drive-ins, some owners began to lose
faith in the viability of their own operations.
pursued. Upkeep was often neglected.
“I go to some drive-ins
that don’t do any business,
but I can understand why – I wouldn’t go there
either,” says Paul Geissinger, co-operator of Shankweiler’s
in Orefield, Pa., the nation’s oldest operating drive-in. “There’s
bad picture quality, some haven’t put in Cinemascope
screens or they still have in-car speakers – you have
to spend money to make money.”
Other ozoners simply fell
to attrition, says Loy. Many owners who built their operations
in the 1940s
ready to retire
by the 1980s, and younger family members
were often hesitant to take over what seemed
of a failing
Some argue that many a
plex-era distributor, too, lost faith. Beginning in the
points for pornography and low-budget
distributors restricted access [of films] to the drive-ins,
they started showing X-rated and lost the family audience,” says
Jim Kopp, co-founder of the Society for the Preservation
of Outdoor Theatres. “People forgot about the drive-in,
and so many people still think drive-ins are just passion
Indeed, for many customers,
what was on the screen became less important than
drive-in’s role as a venue
for socialization. Chatting up a friend during an indoor
unspooling is seldom tolerated. But because drive-in patrons
all have their own speakers, yakking away during a movie
there doesn’t carry the same stigma.
Back in the Mainstream
The bad news for the drive-ins is their U.S. numbers have
continued to decline since the watershed 1980s. The good
news is that decline has grown far less precipitous. About
70 percent of the drive-ins that survived the ‘80s
continue to operate today.
According to some exhibitors, it wasn’t until the early
1990s that drive-in owners could again begin programming
quality first-run product on a regular basis. Pittsburgh-area
exhibitor Rick Glaus says it was impossible to get first-run
product at his Dependable Drive-In until 1994, when he was
permitted to show Disney’s “The Lion King” day-and-date
with the nearby indoor multiplexes. He believes this shift
in studio booking policies has been a critical factor in
rescuing the drive-in from extinction.
Mike Rembusch, president of Indiana’s Canary Creek
Cinemas, says early ‘90s family flicks like “The
Lion King” and “The Flintstones” were among
the first to put his drive-ins back in the first-run business: “Ten
to five years ago they were striking fewer prints. Smaller
towns didn’t get the prints.” Geissinger says
he too has put the sub-run trade behind him. “The distributors
realized the drive-ins’ capacity,” he says. “Why
not give them a print?”
With the return of family-friendly films came
the return of ozoner-friendly families, who quickly rediscovered
useful a drive-in can be for the parents of young children.
Restless preschoolers who might prove disruptive to an indoor
audience can be toted to the local drive-in with considerably
less trepidation. Because of the drive-in’s individual-speaker
system, there’s little risk of a disturbance, no matter
how rambunctious the tot. Parents anxious to see the latest
movies needn’t hire a babysitter, nor do they have
to spend leisure time away from their offspring. Rembusch
says it also helps that drive-ins often offer discounted
ticket and concession prices.
Many within the industry believe that the
number of drive-in closures each year will continue to shrink,
most facilities that were threatened by rising area real
estate values have already shuttered.
Although Northern California-based Century
Theatres has shed 39 drive-in screens since 1997, the circuit
operate more outdoor cinemas than any other chain: 38 screens
at seven sites. Bob Darrow, Century’s vice president
of open-air markets, says that the closures have tapered
off, and the circuit plans to improve and expand operations
at its existing sites.
“There is a core group of patrons who
will see a film nowhere but at the drive-in,” Darrow says. A lot of these people
have families with small children – and the drive-in
movie experience fits their needs to a tee. It’s these
people who are our audience, and we intend to continue to
bring them great movies in a fun environment.”
UDITOA’s Loy is gratified that the media
are now telling more optimistic drive-in stories than they
were 15 years
ago. Tales of “doom and gloom” have largely been
supplanted by features about an ozoner renaissance. It’s
a trend, says Loy, that has boosted the morale of drive-in
owners nationwide. “People started sitting up and saying, ‘Hey
this isn’t a dying business and people appreciate what
Increased first-run title availability has also recently
inspired a handful of entreprenuers to enter the drive-in
businesses. Since 1990, some 43 U.S. drive-ins have reopened,
according to UDITOA. More strikingly, the association’s
figures indicate 20 new U.S. drive-ins have come into being
over the last decade.
Launching or reopening a drive-in is
extremely challenging, says Loy, and of the hundreds of
people he hears from every
year, very few actually get beyond the dream stage.
One hurdle that can often not be surmounted,
he says, is zoning. If a drive-in that operated for 40
years has been
closed for the last 10, there’s a likelihood it now
resides in an area re-zoned for residential property. New
owners attempting to change the zoning laws back encounter
heated opposition from local residents and city planning
Alan Ackerman, president of American
Family Entertainment, began his fight to open a Carroll
County, Md., drive-in four
years ago, but his plans were vetoed by the local zoning
and planning board. He appealed in 2000, but lost because
local residents were concerned about potential noise and
Undeterred, Ackerman went one county
over, where he found an existing drive-in that had been
shuttered since the 1980s.
In June 2003 he was finally granted permission to build his
“It took a lot of fighting and
uphill battles but we got it,” he
says. The site, which he plans to unveil Memorial Day weekend,
will include an indoor area where patrons can sit and watch
through a glass window during the winter months, and where
kids can come in to watch a much smaller screen showing separate
movies. Ackerman says he plans to use a custom-built digital
projector system that he says can put more than 20,000 lumens
on the screen. He says that’s about three times as
much light as the typical drive-in screen gets.
In nearby New Jersey last summer, businessman
John Halecky announced plans to open on Sept. 26, 2003,
a new drive-in
on the Wall Township Speedway . Those plans received much
media attention because New Jersey, which boasted in 1933
the world’s first drive-in, saw the closure of the
state’s last outdoor cinema in 1991. That Wall Township
drive-in has yet to materialize, however, because, at least
as of February, zoning approval had not yet been obtained.
The proposed Wall Township site would time-share its space
with an auto racetrack, and the idea of an operational outdoor
cinema site serving other functions is time-honored: Ozoners
have been playing host to flea markets, swap meets and church
gatherings almost as long as they’ve been in existence.
Halecky points out, however, that operating
on a speedway – where
a large field, a parking lot, and concession and restroom
areas already exist – could enable an exhibitor to
better weather the economic strains of a seasonal business.
He says the plan is to operate six nights a week, closing
on Saturday evenings when the speedway hosts races.
Since he first announced his concept,
Halecky says he has been surprised by the strong show of
interest from the racetrack
industry: He has been contacted by nearly 30 tracks east
of the Mississippi about opening a drive-in as a side show.
D. Edward Vogel, operator since 1988
of the hugely successful 48-year-old Bengies Drive-In in
Baltimore, Md., says that
though it’s been a tough road for ozoners over the
decades, he believes there’s enough love and interest
to keep many more from disappearing.
Although Vogel doesn’t want to ruin the integrity of
his single by adding another screen, he recognizes the benefit
an additional screen can bring him, especially since he operates
in a highly competitive metropolitan market. He has begun
contemplating adding another screen on a different portion
of the property he owns.
He says he, like many other determined drive-in owners, simply
refuses to let go of this all-American icon, what he calls
an alternative under the stars.
“Drive-ins bring the community
together, where you sit there with a beat-up Volkswagen
next to a Lexus and the
children are laughing just as hard,” he says. “Then you’ve
Freelance photographer Elaine Reed
de Laszlo is currently seeking grant funding for her upcoming
The Last Picture Show,” which will feature a collection
of her black and white and color photographs.