The Life And Death Of The “Passion Pits”

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This past Wednesday – June 6th – was the 79th birthday of the drive-in movie theater.

The story goes that Richard Hollingshead was bothered by the fact that his mother could never find a comfortable seat in a movie theater and somehow got it into his head she’d be much more comfortable watching from her car. Well, that’s the story, anyway. Whatever the real inspiration, Mr. Hollingshead patented his design for an outdoor movie theater and opened his first outdoor screen in Camden, New Jersey on June 6, 1933.

On the back of the stonework frame for the screen, gigantic, black letters screamed at passersby: SIT IN YOUR CAR; SEE AND HEAR MOVIES. If those big, black letters caught both your eye and your curiosity, it was going to cost you twenty-five cents for your car and twenty-five cents each for whoever you brought along (or, if you packed up the whole tribe in Dad’s Plymouth, you could all get at a family rate of a buck). For your money, you had to hear the sound over a kind of PA system (the in-car speakers would come later), there was no snack bar (yet), and Hollingshead launched the enterprise with Wives Beware (1932), a Brit-made comedy which had died in theaters in a single week and was picked on the premise such a turkey wouldn’t conflict with any major releases at the time.

Certainly the timing was right. America had had a love affair with the automobile from the moment Charles and Frank Duryea put the first gasoline-powered four-wheeler on the road in 1893. By the 1930s, despite The Great Depression, cars were becoming less functional and more works of beauty, engines were becoming more powerful, and the idea of the weekend drive more popular. With money tight and the times less than rosy, Americans were looking for some cheap pleasures (even accounting for inflation, that dollar for a carful of kin was a bargain – the last time I took my family to the movies it cost over $40). With the drive-in, Hollingshead rolled a family night out at the movies in with a drive in the country and a picnic.

The concept didn’t initially click nationally. By the time of WW II, there were still less than 100 drive-ins operating in the U.S. The boom years came after the war.

The postwar years provided a perfect growth culture. It was a time of unprecedented prosperity, people had more leisure time – and money to enjoy it – than ever before, the inauguration of the interstate highway system sent America’s love of the open road into overdrive, cars were big and comfy (I once had the opportunity to sit in a 1950 Chevy sedan; I had enough headroom to wear a Stetson and the front seat was as big as a sofa), and gas was eighteen cents a gallon.

The drive-in became as much an icon of 1950s fun as carhop burger joints and sock hops. By the end of the 1950s, there were over 5000 drive-ins, and they were particularly popular in rural areas. They came as small as those serving just a few dozen cars, to drive-ins which could hold as many as 3000 cars!

Heading out to the drive-in was primarily – though not solely – a family thing, and the drive-ins strove to accommodate them. Some would open as early as three hours before showtime and offer attractions for the kiddies like pony rides, playgrounds, miniature golf. Some offered dinners brought out to your car by carhops.

By the 1960s, all those kiddies who’d ridden the ponies and played putt-putt in the 50s now had their own cars, and what they found in the drive-ins was something they couldn’t find anywhere else: privacy. Drive-ins became the go-to option for teens looking for place to canoodle undisturbed by buzz-killing adults. Drive-ins earned themselves a not particularly appetizing sobriquet: “passion pits.”

That was the beginning of a long, slow decline for the drive-in. As more teens showed up at the drive-ins, less families came, and screens started to come down.

It had never been a big-dollar business. After all, a drive-in was only open a few hours a day, and only during warm weather. As the business started to fade, drive-in owners looked for ways to generate more revenue during off hours: flea markets, swap meets, car shows, etc.

By the 1980s, new entertainment technologies were beating the hell out of the drive-in business. That was the decade cable TV took off, and then came the VCR. No one had to trek out to the drive-in to see third-rate, third-run movies; you could catch them a dozen times in a month on HBO, or rent them off the back racks at Blockbuster.

The biggest stake through the heart, however, was the real estate market. Drive-ins had sat off from the cities, out where the dark was really dark and the only overhead lights were the stars. But from the postwar years on, growing out from the cities in ever-expanding rings, were the suburbs, and then the malls and business parks. What had once been “the woods” for those communities on the urban periphery had now become prime real estate…and that included drive-in acreage. By 1990, there were less than 1000 drive-in screens left in the U.S.

There are still a few hundred of them around the country, particularly in the southwest with its favorable climate. But they’re more a novelty, more a nostalgia trip than a bonafide part of the distribution circuit. It’s not a business anymore; just an echo.

And one I find personally resonant.

*****

I was lucky. I caught the tail end of it.

I remember the long line of waiting cars, backed up down the gravel drive from the box office to the highway and then down the shoulder, waiting for opening time…

I can remember late night drives back from The Shore, and then jutting up out of the darkness off to the side of the highway, a drive-in screen, a quick, teasing glimpse of a movie floating in the night…

I remember a playground in the space under the screen; a snack bar with incredibly awful hot sandwiches wrapped in foil bags and thinking how cool they looked, like some kind of astronaut food; and climbing up on the rear dash of my dad’s Chevy Biscayne to fall asleep under the bubble-like rear windshield when it got late…

What’s funny is I remember so much about the drive-ins from when I was a kid except the movies. The movie wasn’t important. The going was.

*****

There were still a few drive-ins operating when the oldest of my friends started getting their driver’s licenses.

It was, I grant, perhaps a less innocent kind of fun…but fun nonetheless.

My friend Randy would get hold of his father’s wide-ass Chevy and we’d pack six of us in there.

Well, actually, just five inside. Mark never seemed to have the price of a ticket despite the fact his family had more money than some small countries. We’d have to sneak Mark onto the lot in the trunk. Having to do that for a guy whose family could’ve bought a good-sized Caribbean island created a bit of a resentment which resulted in Randy purposely driving through the deepest potholes he could find, doing a tap dance on the brakes so we could listen to Mark rattle around in the trunk, and then going through an elaborate dialogue with us about how he’d lost the trunk key.

I know what you guys are trying to pull!” came a muffled but still clearly irate voice from the trunk.

Bill, do you have the key? I can’t seem to find it!”

Gee, Randy, I thought you had it!”

THUMP THUMP. “That’s not funny! Knock it off and get me out of here!”

How about you, Ron? Didn’t Randy give the key to you?”

That’s funny, Bill, I thought he gave it to you!”

Nope, that’s what Randy thought, but I — ”

GUYS!” THUMP THUMP.

Other times, we drove out in my friend Gene’s van. We’d park the van sideways and take up two spaces, open up the double side doors, set up a few lawn chairs, crack open a mini-keg, and have a night of it.

The movies were forgettable. The Happy Hooker Goes to Washington (1977). Some piece of crap about women of Atlantis shot in the Philippines. Movies that had been in theaters back in the 1960s.

But just as it had been when I was a kid, the movies themselves didn’t matter. We didn’t go to the drive-ins to go to the movies. We went to the drive-ins to go to the drive-ins.

*****

The last time I went to a drive-in was in the early 1970s. It was on the Hackensack River in the Jersey Meadowlands. When we got bored with the movie, we’d walk over to the river and watch pleasure boats go by. Or my friend Ron would go up to the projection hut, hop up on a planter built in front to keep people clear of the projector beams, and moon the projectionist through one of the empty portals.

There’s an office building there now, and on the other side of Route 3 from where the drive-in had been is the Meadowlands Sports Complex where the Giants play.

It’s a piece of highway I travel on a fairly regular basis. I’ve never passed that damned office building without thinking back not just to the screen it replaced, but to all of them, all those little islands of Panavision dreams floating out there in the night. They all come back to me: six teens sharing the same monster bucket of popcorn; a shriveled snack bar hot dog in its aluminum sack; a yacht slipping by down the river alongside the lot with its decks glowing with a golden light and its passengers watching our movie; looking up through the rear glass of my dad’s Chevy at a sky filled with stars brilliant in an ebon sky untainted by city lights.

– Bill Mesce

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