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A staple of American automotive history, drive-in theat... A staple of American automotive history, drive-in theaters have lost their luster over the years (rutlo, Flickr).

It’s a full house on Saturday night at the Hyde Park Drive-In in Poughkeepsie, New York. That makes owner Barry Horowitz happy. His family has owned and operated the drive-in theater since 1950.

“We’re surviving, and that’s a good thing,” he says, echoing the mantra of today’s economy.

For drive-in owners, it’s particularly acute. Forty years ago, over four thousand drive-in theaters did brisk business across the U.S. Today there are only about a tenth of that many left.

In the upstate New York town I grew up in, the Starlight drive-in was three miles away and the Hollowbrook was just a bit further at six miles. My two older brothers and I were small enough to fit on the roof rack of my parents’ station wagon, and it was from that vantage point that we witnessed first-run classics like “Star Wars” and “Grease,” but also grade-Z trash like “The Incredible Melting Man,” “Sssssss” and, if the theatre owner was really scraping the bottom of the barrel, outtakes and bloopers from ’70s television shows like “Cannon.” We didn’t care, as the drive-in was an all-encompassing experience, and the movies were only part of its charm.

“The drive-in was make-out city,” says Tom Chestnut of Rhinebeck, New York, a patron at the Hyde Park Drive-In. “There wasn’t really any place to have a date where you could be alone. It was also an adult-free zone, a cocoon.”

Charlie Smith threading the projector
(Josh Max).

Horowitz and his projectionist, Charlie Smith, are the only two overseeing the drive-in the night I visited, so I followed Charlie to his inner sanctum, the projection room, an above-ground cement bunker. There, he runs the gargantuan machines, feeding them the enormous spools of film and making sure no bugs interfere with the 4,000-watt projection bulb. He’s also responsible, when Horowitz goes home after the initial rush, for catching people trying to sneak in after the feature has started, as well as directing traffic on particularly crowded nights. 

“I’ve been here 14 years,” Charlie says. “I love the movies. Never gets old. I’ll even go to the movies on my day off.”

Eventually, when it gets dark enough, Charlie throws the switch that projects this week’s blockbuster onto the outdoor screen. Families, pals, teens, dates and solos sit back and participate in a part of an American tradition.

Drive-ins were born in 1933, when Richard M. Hollingshead of Camden, New Jersey, rigged a bed sheet between two trees in his backyard, mounted a projector on the hood of his car and started showing movies for 25 cents per car and 25 cents per movie. Hollingshead patented his idea and the drive-in was born. 

By World War II, “drive-in movie” was a common term. But two decades later drive-ins had begun closing due to a variety of factors, mostly rising real estate values. Drive-in movies sit idle in winter months, and can only be used at night. The prevalence of television didn’t help matters, and it was clear that by the ’70s, the craze had peaked. 
“When I was a young kid, I used to make my parents stay until after the commercials with the dancing hot dogs. Now, as a grown-up, it’s a great place to take the kids because they don’t necessarily have to sit in their seat. They can run around a little if they get bored, they can talk outside the car and it won’t bother others as long as they don’t scream or get too loud,” said Chestnut.

Chestnut’s daughter Vicki, 10, concurs. “I like being outside,” she says. “Even though there are bugs sometimes.”

Speaking of bugs, Catherine Nordling grew up patronizing drive-ins in Minnesota in the 1970s. “My memories include giant brown paper sacks of homemade popcorn,” she told AOL Autos. “And the panic that ensued as the mosquito fogger truck arrived. You had to get into the car quick, roll up the windows and then wait for the truck to wind its way through the rows of cars. It's kind of funny thinking about it now, but why the hell did they always do this in the middle of a movie? Couldn't they do it before or between movies?” 

The Hyde Park theatre and its neighboring Overlook Drive-In aren’t nostalgia trips, though. Horowitz concentrates strictly on modern fare, like “The Expendables” and “The Other Guys,” his big budget attractions of this past summer. He also points out the benefits of outdoor cinema, as opposed to the multi-screen mall movie theater.

“You can pretty much do anything at the drive-in as long as you don’t infringe upon the rights of everybody else,” he says. “At an indoor theatre, it’s a much more controlled atmosphere. Here, it’s much more laid back.”

That wasn’t always the case, says Horowitz. “We had kids who were wrecking it for families, and times where it was strong for families,” says Barry. “Now it’s family-strong.  There’s always some drinking, but the kids aren’t as rowdy as they used to be. We clamped down on it with the help of the police. We have basic simple rules. Don’t try to sneak in, don’t destroy property, and don’t disturb others watching the movie. And the customers are pretty good at it. Not to say that we don’t have problems on occasion. It just means as a general rule, they’re not bad.”

His theaters have also hosted weddings, including a costume party wedding at the Overlook. “The bride and groom used to go to the drive-in on dates, and they wanted to have their wedding during Halloween,” says Barry. “They ordered up a print of ‘War Of The Worlds,’ the old one from the ‘50s, and had us run it for them. They used caterers for the snack bar, set up a big tent, and all the guests came in costumes. They had to do it all themselves. It was a very nice wedding.”

“I’ll keep coming to the drive-in as long as they stay open,” says Tom Chestnut. “And I hope they stay open a long, long time.”  

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 3 Months Ago
      Drive in movies were the best. I grew up in San Antonio Tx. and remember my parents bathing us 5 kids, packing us up in the car, almost forgeting my younger brother one time, packing up the fried chicken, and home made potatoe chips, into the car and heading off to the drive in. We always tuckered ourselves out, thus getting us ready for bed before going, so all they had to do when we got home was plant us in the bed. I'm in my 50's now, and wished drive ins would come back. I and my husband would go....
      • 3 Months Ago
      I'm from Franklinville Nj and just up the road in Vineland is the Delsea drive-in. The place was a main attraction for years but it was shut down in the early 80's I believe. But a few years ago the property was bought and the new owners re-opened it....... I LOVE the drive-in! When it comes to money (and Ive done the math) two adults and two children can go there and even with snacks at the concession stand still pay less than half of the regular ADMISSION to any other theater......The staff is great, the food is even better (yes, i said FOOD...you can get a cheese burger, fries, a milkshake, and even pirogies on the right night ) and i've never had a problem there. I would suggest it for anyone in the southern New Jersey or Philadelphia suburbs area.
      • 3 Months Ago
      Hey Barry!! While I probably owe you a couple bucks, you will be happy to learn, I pay every day! 30 years ago, I snuck into your Overlook Drive-in location, in the trunk of a car. My buddies thought it cool to let me kick and scream for an hour, before letting me out. I now live with claustrophobia and attribute this to that experience. Wish I had paid for a seat!!! LOL
      • 3 Months Ago
      We have a drive-in theater here in the mountains of north GA with a decent bottom line due to the positive word of mouth among teens. They like to borrow the family SUV and park backwards with the tail gate up giving a perfect viewing environment. Baby-sitters take their charges to the theater and keep them both busy and safe while watching the latest cinematic offerings. The iconic experience will probably live on as long as the latest generation embraces the idea...
      • 3 Months Ago
      We enjoyed the double feature at Overlook last weekend, taking in The Town and Going the Distance. We love the drive-in experience because we bring a bunch of other couples, a bottle of wine and some pizza, tailgate style. We all sit on camp chairs and pass around the popcorn during the movie. It is a great way to spend time with friends, take in some fresh air and enjoy a movie!
      • 3 Months Ago
      When I was growing up in Boston in the 1950s some of my happiest times were when my parents would take my brother and me to one of the local drive-in theaters. They were all part of a local chain called Redstone Drive-In Theaters. Who in their wildest dreams could imagine that some day this little theater chain would own one of the major Hollywood studios?
      • 3 Months Ago
      The Sacramento 6 Drive In was due for the trash pile to be replaced by a mall. That has been halted due to the economy. It is increasing its # of customers. We love it. The car seats are more comfortable, you can lay them back , and you can bring lawn furniture, blankets, the dog, the kids, your bbq, a cooler full of goodies, a hot pizza from your favorite place, your own treats, drinks, etc. Hit the dollar tree first for your treats and what you save will pay for your movie ticket. Make your own popcorn at home and save even more and it'll taste so much better. Don't have to sit next to someone texting, can hug my honey instead. Its great for the family or together in a group of friends, its even nice when we go alone, in the winter, take blankets. You get 2 movies for less than the price of one walk in ticket. Roll up the windows and you'll never hear anyone talking on a phone, a beeper going off or people who are just rude and won't shut up. You can make it like the best tail gate party, they open early. The kids can play or fall asleep, no babysitter to pay, and they are free to get in. I think many folks have forgotten how much fun you can make it. It can be a really fun night out for just a few dollars, make it a "event". Have a group of your friends or neighbors meet there, it becomes like a back yard bbq party. Pack a picnic meal, watch the stars, stay to watch the movies twice. For 2 people and $20 you'll come back with change and had 3-4hrs. away from home and lots of fun. Maybe even made new friends to meet up with next week.:-). We are taking the dog there this week end, maybe we'll see you there!!!
      • 3 Months Ago
      Grew up in CT and remember going to the drive-in in Taftville, Norwich-New London & Plainfield. I loved going with my parents and friends, the concession stand was a treat, the swings & playground was great during intermission. 30 yrs later my kids couldn't comprehend such an idea, watching a movie outside, until a guy bought land across the road from me and put in a drive-in with 4 screens! Now they think it's great fun, a bargain price and also take the SUV, park backwards and all sit in the back with pillows & blankets and snacks. My grandchildren now think that grandma's old-fashioned entertainment is really pretty cool!!
      • 3 Months Ago
      Grew up in Asheville, NC. Only nights drive-in was closed was more than 2 inches of snow on ground. No matter how cold it was, the drive-in was a special place for our family. We had 3 of them there, so the weekend could see us going to every one of them if we wanted to. Loved it as a little kid for both the movies and the food and as a teenager for the make-out, the movies and the food---in that order. Loved it as a young married parent for the cheap entertainment and a place we could go as a family. Then I went in the Army and came home to no drive-ins. :-(