- - Thursday, August 8, 2013

Outdoor film festivals are popping up around the area wherever audiences can make themselves comfortable on blankets or lawn chairs. Some popular local festivals continuing into September are at National Harbor, Capitol Riverfront, Rosslyn, NoMa, U Street, Centreville, Crystal City, Fairfax, Penrose Square and Rockville Town Square. The king of them all is the Comcast Outdoor Film Festival.

The local revival of outdoor movies harks back to 1996, when Randy Schools, the president and chief executive officer of the NIH Recreation and Welfare Foundation, and Bob Deutsch, president/chief executive officer of Outdoor Movies in Rockville, launched the Comcast festival.

The lure was a schedule of free, top-rated film favorites for all ages on a 3-story-high outdoor movie screen, the largest in the United States. The goal was to help fund the three National Institutes of Health charities: The Children’s Inn, Camp Fantastic/Special Love and Friends of the Clinical Center. This was accomplished through the generous support of attendees and local food vendors, who provided tasty treats, and donated a percentage of their sales to the cause. The tradition has continued for 17 years as way for the community to celebrate the end of summer.

The NIH charities benefit children with cancer and other serious illnesses. The Children’s Inn, a residence for young patients at NIH, enables families to remain together at a stressful time. Camp Fantastic/Special Love in Front Royal, Va., provides a network of support to children from ages 7 to 17 who rediscover how to be children by enjoying a week of outdoor sports and planned entertainment. The close friendships made at the camp continue through the years with frequent reunions and group adventures.

Friends of the Clinical Center, the third arm of the NIH charities, provides emergency financial assistance for patients’ families for mortgage, rent and utility bill payments, transportation and hotel expenses, medical bills and special patient needs.

“Bob and I first held the festival on the NIH grounds,” Mr. Schools said. “After 9/11, we moved to the grounds of Strathmore and the American Speech Language Hearing Association in Bethesda. When construction began on that land, we moved to the Universities at Shady Grove. This year, we thought it would be fun to remember the days of the family drive-in because the festival will be held on the grounds of Montgomery County Public Schools Board of Education in Rockville, which actually is the site of the original Rockville Drive-in Theater.”

The inventor of the drive-in theater was Richard Hollingshead, a sales manager in Camden, N.J. After experimenting with screens nailed to trees in his backyard, a 1928 Kodak projector on the hood of his car, and a radio behind the screen, he received a patent. On June 6, 1933, he opened this country’s first drive-in theater in Pennsauken, N.J., with an invitation to bring “the whole family … regardless of how noisy the children are.”

His idea soon spread nationwide wherever land was available. Problems with volume control were solved in 1941 by RCA’s in-car speakers. By 2001, LCD projectors and micro-radio transmitters improved the visual and sound systems.

At the height of their popularity in the 1960s, more than 4,000 drive-ins operated throughout the country. They were inexpensive and family-friendly, many offering playgrounds and snack bars. But as real estate prices rose, the drive-in sites gave way to developers. Even though the Rockville drive-in theater ceased to exist 30 years ago, adults will be flooded with happy childhood memories if they return to the site.

The grounds will be set up just as they were then. Guests will have the choice of sitting on blankets in front of the big screens or in their cars. The area will be sectioned off with smaller and shorter cars in front and large vehicles bringing up the rear. The audio for those seated in front will come from the loudspeaker. Folks in cars can simply tune their car radios to pick up the sound.

For three consecutive evenings, families can revel in blockbuster films: “Oz the Great and Powerful” on Aug. 16, “Skyfall” on Aug. 17 and “The Amazing Spider-Man,” on Aug. 18. Patrons are urged to arrive early to enjoy pizza, ice cream, popcorn and other snacks from food trucks. Children can enjoy games, the moonbounce and many other activities. The games and music begin at 5:30 p.m., the movies at 8:30 p.m. Information: 240/753-0350 or filmfestnih.org.