As the sun slowly set on a recent night in June, 800 cars and a crowd of viewers in lawn chairs pulled up to one of the four screens on the 25-acre green of the Mission Tiki drive-in theater in Montclair, Calif. Lovestruck teens canoodled in back seats. Parents corralled children in minivans. It was a remarkable turnout for a business, born 75 years ago, that has been teetering on the edge of extinction for the past two decades.
But tickets at the Mission Tiki have started selling again, and at $7 per adult and free entry for kids under 10, movie-goers are re-embracing the affordable luxury of a night at the drive-in. "It's a family bargain," says Frank Huttinger, vice president of marketing for De Anza Land & Leisure Corp., the family-owned business that operates the Mission Tiki. "It's quality presentation. Our biggest problem is letting people know that we're still there."
That problem isn't unique to the Mission Tiki. About 400 drive-ins presently operate in the United States, a surprisingly large number in this age of personalized, on-the-go media, but many people don't even know they exist. Today, the industry is just a glimmer of what it was once. Back in the 1950s, at the height of the drive-in era, there were 4,000 theaters showing first-run films it was a marriage of two great American passions: automobiles and movies. The drive-in appealed to everyone tired parents, who didn't have to show up in the appropriate social dress code; teenagers, who just wanted a place to hang out with their friends; children, liberated from another boring night at home with the babysitter. "There's nothing quite like [the drive-in]," says April Wright, a filmmaker who has traveled the U.S. for her upcoming documentary, Going Attractions: The Rise and Fall of the Drive-In as an American Icon.
Thanks go to Richard M. Hollingshead, Jr., a chemical company magnate from Camden, N.J., who invented the drive-in three-quarters of a century ago. He spent hours in his backyard mapping out plans, figuring out which parking arrangements would offer the best views, what do in case of rain, and where exactly to place the radios. His test-runs involved a home projector fixed to the hood of his car. "My dad was a very inventive type of guy," says Hollinghead's son, Richard Hollingshead III. On June 6, 1933, the elder Hollingshead opened his first theater in nearby Pennsauken, with a screening of Wives Beware, starring Adolphe Menjou. More than 400 cars showed up to watch. Tickets cost about 75 cents.
Television, naturally, is largely responsible for the fall of the drive-in, but so are creeping suburbs, rising land values and the seasonal difficulty of operating an open-air business. Drive-in owners often can't rely only on theater income to make ends meet. The Mission Tiki's family manages swap meets to help cover costs. So, the theater's grounds do double duty market by day; drive-in by sunset, four nights a week.
Some owners, like D. Edward Vogel, administrative secretary of the United Drive-In Theater Owners Association and the passionate proprietor of Bengies, a drive-in theater in Baltimore, Md., are determined to succeed on ticket sales alone. He says he "puts [his] heart and soul into it. It's taken 22 years but it's a big payoff. People are really starting to appreciate and respect what I do."
Wobbly finances aside, it seems that the drive-in is an American icon that will never completely fade perhaps because of its irrefutable and enduring appeal, says Wright. "If it were just nostalgia, people would come one night and they would go 'Okay, did that, check that off the list,'" Wright says. "But it's not that. They literally are coming every week, week after week. On a beautiful night, with the stars out, it is an experience that I think will survive."