On a warm June night in 1933, auto-parts salesman Richard Hollingshead charged Camden, New Jersey motorists 25 cents a person to watch Wives Beware from the comfort of their cars. A month before, he had patented a ramp system for cars to park at different heights so everyone could see the screen. The show was a hit. The modern drive-in was born.
At the peak of popularity in 1958 there were 4,063 drive-ins in the United States. Nearly 100 years later the tradition is all but dead.
Or is it?
One of the weird side effects of COVID-19 is that it has either killed or reinvigorated a whole handful of industries. Goods have been stranded at ports for weeks and in some cases months; commercial transportation is suffering on a global scale; consumers are behaving utterly irrationally, buying everything or becoming ascetics. Business is struggling to adapt.
But at the same time, some sectors are seeing tremendous growth. And while it seems almost ghoulish to talk about business opportunities at a time when checking for the death count over our morning coffee is de rigueur, the times are what they are.
One of the biggest areas of growth in these dark days is entertainment. The gaming industry is seeing huge numbers, as are any new ways of disseminating content or information, online cooking classes, and virtual travel.
If it’s fun and keeps you six feet from strangers, it’s a go. You can see where we’re going with this.
Drive-ins, once considered outdated and rejected in favor of plush seats and air-conditioned multiplexes, are now the obvious choice for socially distant moviegoers who are sick and tired of Netflix. No offense, Netflix.
Nine decades later, the drive-in is again the place to be. In California, Washington, Texas, and New York enterprising showmen are bringing bits of golden nostalgia to a time of worry and collective, unending stress. And we salute them for it.
At the Show-Boat Drive-In in Hockley, Texas, they’ve seen a 40% increase in profits. Owner Andrew Thomas says: “Obviously this isn’t the way you’d want it to occur, but I’m excited for the idea that there may be a new generation of people that will get to experience going to a drive-in theater and — I was going to say catch the bug… Maybe some other turn of phrase.”
There are about 300 drive-in theaters still in operation in the United States. For most, it’s a struggle to turn a profit, since they’re largely a source of novel, low-cost nostalgia, and rarely the first choice when glossier locations have first-run hits. But things change.
Of the 300, only 15 have stayed open through the COVID-19 shutdowns throughout the nation, but the United Drive-in Theatres Association of America expects another 150 or so to reopen over the next few weeks.
Whether or not those 150 will find success remains to be seen. Major studios have delayed most releases until at least July. A populace that rejected drive-ins for years might not embrace them now. And a generation that has no experience with them at all might not quite get the appeal.
But we kind of think it’ll work out. One of the lessons we all seem to have learned over the past few months is the importance of community. And drive-ins are communal, friendly places. They are a relic of a more collectivist time. And maybe that’s exactly what we need a return to. Maybe we haven’t forgotten how to do it.
Maybe we’ll adapt.
Ironically in New Jersey, the birthplace of the drive-in, the only remaining theater is struggling to get permission to reopen. We wish them luck, and the spirit of Richard Hollingshead wishes them luck. Because the world needs them.
The show must go on, and we have to enjoy it together.