The Evolution of Technology: Drive-In Movies

Category: Evolution of Technology Series, Weekly Columns

Photo from Wired.com by Zen Icknow

Drive-In Movies AKA Bruce’s Guide to the Evolution of Technology and His Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby*

With Guest Co-Author, Professor David E. Weber

The Evolution of Technology series continues with the drive-in movie, which was a rite-of-passage for so many teens back in the day.

For those of you that are new to the Evolution of Technology series, these articles are Boomer Tech Talk’s way of looking at the history of technology through nostalgic memories of new technology back in the day. We intend to cover the gamut of topics from the already covered Transistor Radio and Vinyl, to 8-Track Tapes, the Walkman, Car Stereos, and more. Your suggestions are welcome for future topics. Just leave them in the comments section below.

Once again, I am privileged to share the writing of this article with my oldest friend in the world, David E. Weber, a professor of communication studies at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

For more information on Professor Weber and his impressive background, please refer to our first collaboration, Evolution of Technology – Vinyl.

He remembers incidents in my life that I’ve long forgotten, which is the reason I consider him my personal memory bank. Consequently, DW, as I’ve fondly called him forever, brings a detail of memory to my Evolution of Technology series.

When I refer to the drive-in movie as a rite-of-passage, I mean it quite literally because teens were much more restricted when we grew up in not having alone time together. Dances were chaperoned, parents often supervised dates, and the notion of a teen boy and girl being left alone in one of their bedrooms was beyond any possibility for us Leave It to Beaver-generation teens.

But, when we turned 16, got our driver’s license, and were allowed to go to the drive-in movies, we were freed from the shackles of parental supervision unless, of course, Mom was in the back seat.

The drive-in movie theater was a uniquely American phenomenon (the first such theater was launched in the early 1930s in New Jersey). Given the sprawl of post WWII America, the development of suburbs and the general explosion of our population – the Baby Boomer generation – the drive-in movie became symbolic of the changes that were taking place, socially and otherwise in the fifties and sixties.

Television was becoming ubiquitous and Hollywood was fighting back with bigger screens (Cinemascope) and making every effort to distinguish going to the movies from watching Uncle Miltie, I Love Lucy, or Dragnet.

As Professor Weber and I both grew up in Los Angeles, where Hollywood lived and breathed, and the weather was so perfect, drive-in movie theaters were everywhere. In my childhood, land was still relatively inexpensive so that cost factor wasn’t an impediment. There were two specific drive-in theaters I recall with special fondness – The Gilmore, next to Farmer’s Market (now an upscale outdoor shopping center called The Grove, with a multiplex instead of The Gilmore) and The Olympic, on the corner of Olympic and Bundy.

The Olympic had a painting on the front side of its screen, as every drive-in theater did to varying degrees of artistic expression that stands out in my memory as the quintessential Southern California image. It showed a surfer, on a very long board, surfing the waves with a girl surfing right next to him.

Teens loved the generally accepted practice of the drive-ins charging by the carload. I can remember all too well the common practice of stuffing extra kids in the trunk to get more friends into the movie. Some drive-ins were wise to this and busted the car and teens, making them pay for everyone.

Once inside the open grounds of the drive-in, you would choose a parking spot on the inclines built to allow each car to face upwards towards the giant screen. A pole adjacent to each parking spot held the speaker that was wired and had a hook that would allow it to hang from inside your window. It also had a volume control. The sound was about as bad as you imagined would be produced by a metal speaker that is allowed to stay outside all the time.

But, who cared!  The movie was secondary to the bigger opportunity going to the drive-in afforded. Making out! Every guy used the drive-in movie as his chance to make a move on his date. And, every girl routinely shrugged off those efforts in the ongoing mating ritual of that much less permissive era.

Frankly, it was really fun and I believe much more appropriate to our teens’ growth than the excess sexuality brought in with The Pill and the Flower Child Generation.

Okay, I think it’s time to turn this article over to DW, who will add much more specific memories, and give us his unique perspective. Take it away, Professor Weber!

The first movie I saw in a drive-in was a picture called Dondi, in summer 1961, when my parents and I were vacationing in San Diego. One night, Mom and Dad threw me and my travel blanket into the car. We went to a drive-in to see  the story of a European war orphan befriended by a U.S. Army squad, and eventually, taken secretly by them back to the U.S.A. I had never watched a movie under bright stars and surrounded by the invigorating chill of a coastal evening. I felt like I was on an adventure. Not only that, Dondi made it seem like being orphaned and then adopted by soldiers was a pretty good deal.

I was hooked on drive-ins ever after. The darkness creeping over the horizon, as the show was about to begin always excited me. In a drive-in, unlike in a regular movie theater, talking was permissible because there were no neighbors to disturb. I could ask my mom and dad for an explanation of what I saw but did not understand.

The food concession at most drive-ins seemed like gourmet restaurants. In a drive-in, in addition to the popcorn and soda pop you could buy at any theater, you could purchase hot dogs, hamburgers, and ice cream. Just under the enormous screen, many drive-in owners built swing sets and jungle gyms for use by bored children. You could scamper below projected images so tall and wide as to be difficult to decipher; you could hear the muffled hush of music and dialogue echoing from a thousand tinny speakers.

In 1962, in upstate New York, my cousin, Dick, and his oldest sons and I saw 633 Squadron, a WWII air combat movie, at a drive-in. Decades later, when Dick and I began our occasional email correspondence, the first message I sent him included a reminiscence about that outing, and I also mentioned that I had recently bought 633 Squadron on DVD.

A year or two later, I saw the movie, Goldfinger, starring Sean Connery, in a drive-in near San Jose, California, with my Aunt Margee and her daughters, my cousins Wendy and Debbie. Much of the plot, and most of the double entendres, went over my head, but I entertained myself by observing Wendy and Debbie, a few years older than me, as they giggled and got mushy over Sean Connery.

After we got our driver’s licenses in 1968, my friends and I could go to drive-ins without adult supervision. One Monday, one high school classmate bragged to us that had taken one particularly attractive girl we all knew to a drive-in in his dad’s Ford Mustang. One of the guys smirked, “Hold on … the Mustang? It has bucket seats, practically no back seat, and a stick shift!” For weeks thereafter, we reminded Mustang Boy that anyone dimwitted enough to take a girl to a drive-in in a car without bench seats had no business taking a girl to a drive-in!

When my college years began in the early 1970s, drive-ins had begun to close down, or typically only showed movies originally released months before. But drive-ins offered me, a movie buff, a second shot at seeing movies I had liked, or missed, during initial release. Thus in a drive-in near my university did I see The Wild Bunch with four other movie-loving buddies from my dorm.

The last time I went to a drive-in was in Denver in 1996. My girlfriend, Ann, and I, both in our mid-40s, thought it would be fun to pretend we were once again teenagers! Speaker technology had improved markedly from back in the day. But I felt confined peering through the windshield. Ann and I climbed into the back seat. It was cramped and cold and limited the view of the screen even more. Well before the movie ended, we drove back to her place to watch a movie on video, in comfort. Fittingly, the movie we had suffered through at the drive-in was Waterworld . . . a mediocre film famous for being one of the biggest and most expensive bombs in Hollywood history.

As promised, DW did deliver some great memories from that hard-drive memory of his. We’d love to hear some of your memories so please feel free to share them with us in the comments section below. In the meantime, we’ll be working on our next Evolution of Technology article. Will it be 8-Tracks, Car Stereos, the Walkman, or Answering Machines? Suggestions are welcomed.

Now, you can’t go to drive-in movie theatres anymore, but I have to tell you that my home theatre is a darn fun experience. My couch is as good for making out as any jalopy’s back seat!  But, it really did change significantly when I got my new Blu-Ray DVD Player (Samsung BD-C5500 1080p Blu-ray Disc Player).  I was not surprised at the enhanced picture quality, but I was blown away, literally, by the better sound. I happen to have a really good Stereo system, with monster speakers, so I was able to really hear the difference.  And, it was a heckuva lot better than those tinny speakers at the drive-in, though I’d still love to enjoy the drive-in experience now and then.

*an homage to Tom Wolfe’s first collected book of essays, published in 1965.

  • Casudi

    Yes, you can go the drive-in movie theater, but not to see a movie.  However another piece of American nostalgia has taken over our local dead and defunct theater; Airstream storage, or so it seems as just in he last few months I noticed multiple Airstream trailers have shown up in the parking space with good viewing of the big inoperative screen! Is this a sign of things to come. What goes around comes around. Fun post Bruce, I really enjoyed it.

    • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

      Thanks, Caroline…I actually saw an operating drive-in movie theater when we drove to San Francisco last week! WOW!

  • Seattledad

    I’m a bit sad that there are not more drive in theaters any longer.  Some of my best teenage memories were of headed with my carload of buddies to the drive in.

    • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

      Did you ever sneak in friends in the trunk?