When the drive-in theater was king

The drive-in allowed you to watch a movie in the privacy of your own car.

The automobile age and Hollywood’s fantasyland crossed paths more than 65 years ago in Camden, N.J., with the opening of the first drive-in theater. It changed the way Americans dated and created a way for parents to go to the movies without hiring a babysitter.

This melding of the automobile and the movie was so popular that by 1958 there were more than 5,000 drive-ins in the United States.

Richard M. Hollingshead, of Camden, the father of the drive-in, had begun experimenting showing movies with a 16mm projector in his driveway. He could view it while sitting in his car provided no other car blocked his way. So he devised an inclined ramp where the front end of the car was tilted upward, allowing clear vision over the car in front. He patented the ramp and opened the world’s first drive-in, a 400-car theater with eight rows and a 30- by 40-foot screen.

Five years later in 1938, a Detroit News article chronicled the opening of the first drive-in theater in Detroit on Harper. It was the first structure of its kind in the Midwest.

“The ushers have so large a section to patrol that they use bicycles,” The News reported.

Cars crowd into a new drive-in theater in Hollywood in 1937.

The theater had 11 ramps with room for 500 cars. (The ramps) “slope to the rear so the nose of each car is slightly tilted, looking up at the screen that measures 50 by 60 feet,” the story continued. “There are 35 feet of road space for cars to enter and leave. Traffic is all one way. Synchronization of sound and light is obtained by a device that gives perfect co-ordination from the first to the last ramp.

This kind of entertainment has an appeal for many people who otherwise cannot go to the movies…Invalids, for instance, are driven into the theater and remain comfortably relaxed for the entire show.”

The Harper manager told of the experience of one invalid, bedridden for 17 years, who was able to enjoy his first motion picture in the outdoor theater).

“There are families with children too small to be taken along to an indoor movie, as their crying may disturb the other patrons. Here they may cry as loud as they wish as the other patrons will not be disturbed. It doesn’t matter whether it is rainy or dry, as the patron remains seated in his own automobile during the performance with the windows of his car open or closed, as he pleases….patrons like the idea of dressing informally, lounging in their cars, smoking and taking refreshments while watching a picture.”

The drive-in movie is a desolate place by day, but a magical one by night.

The first feature at the Harper was “The Big Broadcast of 1938” with W. C. Fields and Shirley Ross.

A second outdoor theater, the West Side Drive-In, opened in April of 1940 on Eight Mile and Schaefer, showing “Allegheny Uprising” with Claire Trevor and John Wayne. Both theaters offered late shows in 1943 for the war workers.

The drive-ins practically invented the concent of an entertainment complex. The Gratiot Drive-in, which opened in April, 1948 was billed as the world’s largest drive-in, featuring free pony rides, merry-go-round and other playground amusements for the kids, a large restaurant that even warmed baby bottles on schedule for patrons, and a living curtain waterfall illuminated by colored lights to simulate Niagara Falls.

Some drive-ins had miniature railroads, swimming pools (there was a “dive-in” in Georgia), picnic areas, miniature golf, horseshoes, and other attractions. A drive-in in Winter Haven, Fla., on the banks of a lake provided boats so patrons could fish while watching the film. In Japan where space is at a premium, portable drive-ins would be set up at night in empty parking lots.

But in the beginning there were problems that had to be solved.

The Harper found that the loudspeaker system disturbed residents as far as a mile away. One resident heard the noise and “I got up and went to look for it. It was after midnight and I went driving up and down the street looking for the owner of that radio. Then I knew it came over the fields from that theater.”

Some early drive-ins had speakers that were adjusted by attendants so that they could be plainly heard even with the car windows closed.The theater’s neighbors could probably hear ,too.

The owners were charged with maintaining a nuisance. The next year, a new sound system called “solo sound reproduction,” was installed, providing a speaker for each car, eliminating the high amplification of the loud speaker. The Harper was the first in the country to use this system.

One New York theater complained that movie -goers often unintentionally drove away with the speakers still attached to the cars. Absent minded drive-in patrons who drove away with the in–car speakers still hanging on their windows received a healthy jolt to remind them of their mistake. The cable attached to the speakers could withstand a 300- or 400 pound tug before letting the speaker go.

In 1949, the Wayne County Sheriff’s Department received reports of immorality and drinking by teen-agers at drive-in theaters. Managers were warned they would be closed if deputies discovered “teen-age immorality” on the premises.

Parents complained that children living near drive-ins could see objectionable movies from their bedroom windows. This wasn’t a problem for a jail warden in St. Louis, who had a perfect view of a local drive-in screen from his bedroom window — the theater owners graciously installed a speaker in his room. Prisoners who also had a clear view of the screen got no such service.

The popularity of drive-ins soared into the 1950s. A Saturday Evening Post article reported that movie attendance was down everywhere, except in the drive-ins. Traditional theater owners despise the drive-ins, but car owners loved them. “You can eat your dinner, get your car washed and see a movie all at once,” the Post article said. Called “passion pits'” by some, “There are 2,200 of them in the U.S.A. now, and they’re really making money,” the Post went on.

Drive-in movie equipment, circa mid-1950s.

The Post told of a small drive-in set up in a cow pasture near Salt Lake City and received a complaint from a woman who was watching the movie when a cow stuck his head in the window and licked her.

In a Michigan drive-in ,a little girl got lost trying to find her way back to the family car. The father was summoned over the public address system and the two headed back to the car hand- in-hand. Shortly afterward they were back at the booth. The father had become lost, too.

And in 1959, a Chicago drive-in announced reduced admission rates for small foreign cars.

Daylight-saving time became a problem for drive-ins in the 1960s. It didn’t get dark in Michigan till nearly 10 p.m. One drive-in owner said Michigan license plates should be changed from “Water Winter Wonderland” to “Land of the Midnight Sun.”

>X-rated movies at drive-ins became a hot issue in the 1970s. A Caseville, Mich., case went all the way to the State Court of Appeals, which ruled in September 1979 that “Unless the movie being shown is judged obscene, a court cannot close a drive-in theater just because neighbors complain it’s a nuisance.”

But by this time the popularity of drive-ins had begun to fade. By 1980, the number of outdoor theaters had dropped to 900.

In July 1970, the Detroit News Movie Theater Guide advertised 26 drive-in theaters in Metro Detroit, but this number had fallen to seven by 1988 with the closing of the Grand River Drive-in to make way for a shopping mall.

>Some blamed urban sprawl. Martin Shafer, who owned the Dearborn drive-in said, “Drive-in theaters are on the only land parcels big enough for a shopping center. It’s hard to turn down an offer that equals 10 years of profits on the drive-in.”

Others blamed their demise on the advent of cable TV, VCRs and video games. Today, there are 851 drive-ins in the United States, 25 of which are in Michigan.

The Ford-Wyoming in Dearborn is the only one left in Metro Detroit. It’s been operating for 48 years and is still thriving. A Detroit News article described it: “The speakers still are cheesy, teen-agers still smooch in the backseat and popcorn is the most expensive item on the menu.”

>The managers admitted they had to adapt to survive and enlarged the theater to nine screens. One appeal is the relaxed setting and nostalgia. Some customers remember coming here as kids. Now they’re bringing their children. One theatergoer summed up her feelings. “You just worry sometimes that it will be all gone. We felt so sorry to see those others all go. We really enjoy this place.”

Attendant Carri Marks hands tickets to a patron at the Grand River Drive-in’s final night before closing in 1988. The theater came down to make room for a shopping mall.

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files of the Detroit News. To view images available for sale from our photo collection please visit our Photostore of historic galleries. )

By Kay Houston / The Detroit News