- The Washington Times - Friday, September 8, 2000

Maybe daylight-saving time started the decline of drive-in theaters. The "first feature at dusk" screen time became so late, particularly in the Northern states in midsummer, that simply going to a movie meant getting home after midnight.
Maybe the blame can be put on TV, the VCR, computers and video games. Certainly contributing was the fact that the pastureland where many theaters were built grew too valuable as cities expanded to encompass them. Gradually the screens came down, and the uniquely ramped rows were bulldozed into shopping mall sites.
Nostalgia has put a rosy haze on the heyday of the drive-in, and the theaters that remain are gaining almost landmark status. "There's even a brand new one in Marion, Va.," said Don Sanders of Dallas.
Mr. Sanders and his wife, Susan, have written two books on drive-ins, "The American Drive-In Movie Theater" (Motorbooks International, $29.95) and "Drive-In Movie Memories" (Carriage House Publishing, $19.95).
The pair traveled the country visiting many drive-ins and collecting memories and photographs of the theaters wherever they went. Some of the signs that decorated the great slab of the screen's backside are fine examples of neon art before it was recognized as art.
In 1958, the country had about 5,000 drive-ins. Now the number is somewhere around 800. The first was opened in Camden, N.J., in 1933, by Richard M. Hollingshead, who developed the ramped parking that made it possible for moviegoers to see the screen over the car ahead. At the peak of their popularity in the 1950s, drive-ins showed movies to more people than did regular theaters. Drive-ins were that popular.
Now those who experienced drive-ins at that time (many of whom must have thought movie attendance required footed jammies) are returning to the screens of their childhood with their children or grandchildren. It's a similar dynamic to the burgeoning interest in collecting cars of the 1950s. Those are the cars many people hungered after as youngsters. It's great fun to combine the two nostalgia waves. I suggest that owners of old cars either get a group together or on their own make pilgrimages to some drive-ins. I asked for suggestions from Mr. Sanders. Here are some:
Hulls Drive-in on Route 11 in Lexington, Va. It closed after 48 years of operation when the owner died, but then a group of townspeople banded together (as "Hull's Angels") and reopened the theater this summer. "It's selling out every weekend," Mr. Sanders said.
The 49er on Route 49 in Valparaiso, Ind. It just added a second screen and updated the concession stand. That's major news, because concession stands at drive-ins usually are more important than what movie is playing. Pizza, for instance, was a staple at drive-in theaters before the pizza parlor was a staple. (The 49er serves it.) Moviegoers might watch the show from their individual sound-served cocoons, but they like to socialize at the concession stand, waiting for the last of twilight to bleed from the sky.
The Movie Manor Motel (Star Drive-in) in Monte Vista, Colo. If you travel a long way, don't worry about a place to stay on your movie adventure. This double-decker motel has 28 rooms and a picture-window view of the screen with sound piped into the room. There's also a pair of runways for fly-in patrons. "They really know how to do things there," Mr. Sanders said.
The Beacon in Guthrie, Okla. Ideally, when you visit the Beacon, "Twister" will be showing on the big screen, because the Beacon was the drive-in devastated by the title storm in that movie. That ought to get you scanning the horizon.
As drive-in theaters matured as an attraction, many broadened their appeal. The addition of more screens was one way to pull in more viewers. (Try the Landmark Twin on Hydraulic in Wichita, Kan., which has space for 1,300 cars.) Becoming part of a larger entertainment complex was another marketing maneuver kiddie rides, water sports, miniature golf, bigger and fancier restaurants.
Silver Lake Twin Drive-in on Route 39 in western New York state has a new miniature golf course and the Charcoal Corral restaurant.
The Park Place Drive-in was opened recently by brothers John and Jerry Harmon in Marion, Va. They chose the multiple-attractions route, too.
Mr. and Mrs. Sanders have a Web site (www.americandrivein.com), and many of the existing drive-ins have, too. Start your search engines. Enjoy the show.
MOTOR MATTERS

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