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Are Drive-In Theaters Making a Comeback?

By Philip R. Devlin.

A chemical company executive named Richard Holingshead opened the first-ever drive-in theater in America 87 years ago this year in Camden, NJ, during the Great Depression. Within 10 years, hundreds of drive-ins opened across the country, particularly after the most vexing problem — that of an adequate sound system — was solved by RCA in 1941. RCA had the brilliant idea of setting up individual speakers mounted on posts to provide adequate and timely sound for each car. As long as patrons remembered to unhook the speaker from their car before driving off, there were few problems and drive-ins flourished.

The new form of entertainment, however, was not without other problems. Religious groups complained that drive-ins were immoral because the privacy of being in a locked car or van in the dark provided ample opportunity for sexual encounters; thus, drive-ins came to be known as “passion pits.” Another issue centered around the underage drinking of liquor, as it was easy to conceal alcoholic beverages in the trunks of vehicles. It was also possible for people — especially teenagers — to smuggle in their friends in the trunk!

Weather was another problem, particularly in Connecticut and other New England states where evening thunderstorms often arose. Daylight-saving time was also an issue, as movies sometimes couldn’t begin until 9:30 at the peak of summer. Despite these drawbacks, drive-in theaters experienced explosive growth during the postwar period.

To lure patrons to the theaters before dark, theater managers introduced a number of gimmicks such as playgrounds for kids and live music concerts before the show. The largest drive-in theater in Connecticut, the Meadows Drive-In in Hartford, for example, actually had motorized rides for kids in their playground. The Meadows claimed to be the largest drive-in in the world! The facility, opened in 1955, covered 32 acres, could hold over 2,500 cars and had 6 concession stands. The space is now known as the Comcast Theater (formerly the Meadows Music Theater) and claims to be the country’s largest open-air music venue with a capacity of over 30,000 people. The Meadows Drive-In was also the first outdoor theater to show professional boxing matches live. It closed in 1975.

Not far from the Meadows was the Hartford Drive-In on the Berlin Turnpike and the East Windsor Drive-In on Route 5. The East Hartford Drive-In was also located on Route 5. Southington and Middletown also had long-lasting drive-in theaters. In fact Southington is one of the 3 drive-ins left in Connecticut. The Southington theater re-opened in 2010 with help from the town. It is located at 935 Waterbury-Meriden Road in the Plantsville section of town.

Another survivor is the Mansfield Drive-In, located in Mansfield, CT at the intersection of Routes 31 and 32. The Mansfield theater doubles as a giant flea market on weekend days, a strategy that has helped it and other drive-ins to survive. The largest current drive-in in the world, the Fort Lauderdale Swap Shop, also doubles as the single-largest outdoor flea market in the world.

The third Connecticut drive-in still operating is located in Barkhamsted and is called the Pleasant Valley Drive-In. Pleasant Valley has been in the news lately, as a movie industry technological changeover to a digital projector system has endangered its existence. Beginning in 2014, the movie industry will no longer make movies available in a 35 mm film format. The problem is the cost of the new projection system, estimated by some reports to be in the $80,000 range—a steep price for a seasonal mom-and-pop business. Incidentally, the old speaker-on-a-pole system at Pleasant Valley has been replaced with the more technologically savvy FM radio speaker. Simply tune your car radio to 87.9 FM and listen to the show.

In 1965, drive-ins accounted for over 25% of the movie screens in the United States. Now they constitute just over 1%. A number of factors over the years have conspired to put the drive-in theater business into decline. Among the most significant factors is the price of real estate. Often, strategically located drive-ins became more valuable as real estate for other purposes. The Hartford Drive-In on the Berlin Turnpike, for example, is a great location for the condominiums that now are located there.

Advances in home entertainment options for movies such as the VCR and DVD plus huge projection screen TVs have also contributed to the demise of the drive-in; nevertheless, there are many people alive today with happy memories of attending many a drive-in movie during their teenage years in the 1950s and 1960s. Are you one of those people? If so, please share a memory in the “Comments” below.

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