The drive-in, like the diner, belongs to New Jersey. Invented in Camden in 1933 by Richard Hollingshead Jr., the drive-in (then known as the Park-In Theatre) quickly caught on. Its rapid growth was encouraged by the invention of the “talkie” and America’s love affair with the automobile. Moreover, the American landscape provided a natural milieu for this type of movie theatre. Much of the country during the first half of the 20th century was nothing but wide-open spaces. This left plenty of room for a huge screen and even larger parking lots. Watching a movie in this format seemingly duplicated driving, an activity for which Americans were highly enthusiastic.
Something more profound occurred at the drive in. Watching a film within the confines of the car forced the driver and the passengers to look through the window to see the screen. The sensation was that of travelling without going anywhere- an escape of the mind. Because the viewer was often literally in the driver’s seat, movie watching became a first person experience and the connection between viewer and character onscreen was instant and automatic. In this setting, the viewer, comfortable in their familiar surroundings, was, at the same time, forced out of their own world and into the experience of another. In a regular movie theatre, the experience is shared with strangers thus nullifying the sensation that one is a part of the life onscreen. This is not to suggest that going to the drive-in was an isolating experience. It was very much a social activity and movie watching outdoors harkened back to ancient social behaviors. At the drive in, humankind utilized technology and pitched an image against the darkness, the void; much like primitive man gathered around the campfire and told stories well into the night.
All that is left of many of these theatres are silent screens and parking lots covered with weedy overgrowth. Architecturally, there is something compelling about these remnants: the monolithic screen sitting defiant against the backdrop of the massive sky. These spaces appear like modern ruins and reveal a lot about our current culture and society. In her 2013 documentary film, Going Attractions , director April Wright examines some of the events that led to the rise and fall, and possible rise again of the drive-in theatre– see South Jersey’s own Delsea Drive-in . These events were largely financial and included the fuel crisis that kept people out of their cars and away from the drive-in theater. Yet the primary element that ended the drive-in was a large part of what began it – wide-open space. As cities grew and suburbs expanded, the drive-in’s size and location was a hot commodity and these theatres were largely consumed by the insidious sprawl of the late 20th century.
Going Attractions will be shown at the Reel East Film Festival on Saturday 8/23.