When Reels and Wheels Got Together
No doubt you can you feel the electricity in the air today. You’re probably jittery with anticipation and I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve planned a blockbuster party to celebrate this momentous day in history.
Wait. What big day, you ask? Well, I’m not talking about today’s anniversary of “D-day,” although that’s an important moment in history, to be sure. Nope, today is also the 80th anniversary of the opening of very first drive-in movie theater.
Go ahead, I’ll wait while you catch your breath.
All better? Good. Okay, so way back on June 6, 1933 in Pennsauken, N.J., Richard M. Hollingshead Jr. welcomed locals to the world’s first drive-in movie theater. He advertised this amazing new way to watch films with the slogan, “The whole family is welcome, regardless how noisy the children are.” Not sure that brand message would draw a big crowd today, but 80 years ago it was breakthrough stuff.
Interestingly, the first movie shown on Mr. Hollingshead’s revolutionary outdoor screen was “Wife Beware!” Um, okay. Doesn’t exactly sound like family fare, now, does it? Be that as it may, the new movie-watching concept was an instant success and similar drive-in theaters soon sprang up from vacant lots all across the nation.
The new technology had the usual growing pains, of course – the most notable being that with speakers up front near the screen, the farther back you parked your car, the more delayed the sound became when it reached your ears. Oops.
RCA solved this problem in 1941 by developing a bulky metal box of a speaker that hung on the partially rolled down driver’s side window and had a single knob to adjust the volume level inside your car. Voila! Perfect audio. Or decent, at least.
During the heyday of drive-in theaters (the ’50s and ’60s), there were more than 4,000 of the venues all across America. Growing up in the Crescenta Valley in the ’60s, we had a couple of great options when it came to drive-ins. The biggie, of course, was the Picwick Drive-In with an 800 car capacity on West Alameda in beautiful downtown Burbank. Slightly smaller, but a whole lot closer, was Crescenta Valley’s very own Sunland Drive-In Theater.
Opened in July of 1950, the Sunland Drive-In on Foothill Boulevard could accommodate 650 cars on its 10-acre site. The theater’s 75-by-80 foot screen was later widened with extended side panels when wide-screen CinemaScope films were released.
In my mind, I can still see the towering, neon-lit mid-Century style marquee whenever I drive by the now-abandoned and shamefully decaying K-Mart facility which was built on the site after the Sunland Drive-In closed and locked its gates for good in September of 1976.
In addition to being a place where entire families could go – even with crying babies – without bothering the movie-goers next to you, drive-in theaters allowed you to watch the latest and greatest feature films (double features, I might add!) in the comfort and convenience of your own vehicle. Kids would often wear their pajamas or they could play on the swings, seesaws and teeter totters in the playground directly in front of and below the massive screen while waiting for the sun to go down and the movie to begin.
Because you were charged by the number of people in your car (although much less than a typical movie theater), it became a game with some folks to hide a kid or two under a blanket, or down on the floorboards as you drove through entry gate to pay your admission. Oh, and you could also bring your own food and drinks with you to save even more money – one more reason drive-ins were so family friendly.
For obvious reasons, drive-ins were an instant favorite date night destination for teen couples. Let’s just say, these venues didn’t earn the nickname of “passion pits” without good reason.
At least, that’s what I’ve heard.
I’ll see you ’round town.