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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