Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

In June 1933, J. Borton Weeks, president of the Keystone Automobile Club, wrote to Richard Hollingshead, Jr., a Camden, New Jersey, businessman, congratulating him on a project “finely conceived and splendidly executed for the convenience, comfort, and entertainment of the motoring public.” Weeks predicted that Hollingshead’s brilliant venture would be copied across the country – and throughout the world. The endeavor that so greatly impressed the automobile club executive was the world’s first drive-in movie theater, which Hollingshead had opened in Camden on Tuesday, June 6.

After a half-century of ups and downs, many drive-ins remain, but are often over­looked in this era of cable television and VCRs. Yet, the surviving drive-ins are not only a nostalgic testament to the not-so-distant “good old days,” but a larger-than-life example of how Americans combine two favorite pas­times: driving and movies. Despite harsh winters, economic vagaries, and a fickle audience with changing tastes, drive-ins once flourished in the Keystone State.

The full story of the origin of the drive-in theater has been clouded by lore and legend, but two versions seem to contain some grains of truth. One holds that Hollingshead, a manufacturer of automobile waxes and polishes, conceived of outdoor movies as a sideline to a deluxe service station, where patrons could watch newsreels and eat lunch while their cars were being serviced. The other version claims that Hollingshead was looking for new business opportunities in the midst of the Great Depres­sion. He believed that people would cling to two luxuries despite all hardships – their automobiles and going to the movies. So he combined these, experimenting in his driveway with his car, a movie projector, the garage door for a screen, and a lawn sprinkler to simulate inclement weather.

Whatever the full story behind his innovation, Hollingshead did pursue his idea of outdoor movies. He selected a site along busy Admiral Wilson Boulevard, connecting Camden and Philadelphia, and engaged architect Howard Hall to design the theater. The screen building bore a strong resem­blance to a giant (and yet-to-be-fashioned) television set. Sound roared from three blast speakers, similar to a public address system, mounted at its top.

A hesitant theater industry greeted the new drive-ins with skepticism and, in some cases, disdain. Film distributors resisted selling good, first-run pictures to drive-in operators. Even the popular press predicted drive-ins would be a short-lived fad. But J. Borton Weeks’ prediction proved to be accurate – the public did enjoy this novel way to attend movies. By 1941, audiences were patronizing nearly one hundred drive-in theaters­ – nicknamed “ozoners” – in twenty-seven states. Enthusi­asm for these outdoor cinemas skyrocketed far beyond the early entrepreneurs’ hopes; by 1960, more than five thousand drive-ins accounted for a formidable share of the theater industry. The strength of their numbers commanded first-run movies previously reserved for the indoor theaters, known in the trade as “hardtops.”

But by the 1980s, several irreversible factors conspired to bring about the downfall of most drive-in theaters. Rising real estate values offered owners attractive incentives to sell out to developers of industrial parks, strip shop­ping plazas and malls, and tract housing. Film companies demanded longer runs than drive-in operators could guarantee, leaving them with second- and third-run features reminiscent of the early days. Indoor multiplex theaters lured away patrons with more film choices, while cable television and the ubiquitous VCR offered viewers the casual comfort in their own homes that they used to find only at the drive-in. Changing social mores relaxed the need for teenagers to go to the drive-in to cultivate romance (and those who did found smaller cars with bucket seats uncomfortable). For much of the movie-going public, too, drive-ins had earned unenvi­able reputations as “passion pits” and X-rated movie venues. These only added to the everyday operational problems of bad weather and high maintenance, such as surfacing and draining the lot, grass cutting, winterizing, maintaining the sound system and vandalism. And add to this litany a constant barrage of automobile problems, such as dead batteries, empty gas tanks, flat tires, and bother­some horns and headlights.

Today, about ninety percent of the country’s drive-ins have closed, yet somehow a stubborn few remain. Most of the drive-ins on the suburban fringe have been lost, so most of the survivors are located either in areas that are not growing or in relatively rural areas. Well-run theaters, though, continue to keep their customers happy. The many advantages that originally attracted early patrons remain: privacy to talk, eat, smoke, as well as to walk around the lot. Drive-ins also offer lower admission prices and double features. And history contin­ues to repeat itself: most drive-ins have given up risqué, often tawdry, movies for more family-oriented fare.

Pennsylvania’s oldest drive-in theater is, in fact, the country’s oldest. After visiting Richard Hollingshead’s first drive-in, Wilson Shankweiler opened his at Orefield, near Allentown, Lehigh County, in 1934. Paul and Susan Geissinger, who met while working in a hardtop theater, now own and operate this three hundred car theater. They maintain drive-in traditions but accommodate technology by using both individual car speakers and radio sound. Business remains steady, although on some nights they turn away patrons, and on others the lot is virtually empty. Despite the vagaries of business, the Geissingers aren’t giving up. They have declined offers for the prop­erty, a sacrifice in a rapidly growing metropolitan area.

At the western end of the Commonwealth, near Brownsville on Route 40 (the old National Road), the Malden Drive-In has seen business rebound in recent years. Wesley and Dolores Rager had taken their children to the drive-in when it was known as Cuppy’s. Looking for a place for their masonry business in 1989, they pur­chased the theater from the previous owner, who had operated it for thirteen years. Since they didn’t need all the land for their business, the Ragers have kept the drive-in open.

Their grown children now play a big hand in running the theater. Wes Jr. operates the projector and sister Wendy cooks in the concession stand, while in-laws and grandchil­dren help with refreshments, tickets, and cutting grass and pulling weeds. Wendy Rager emphasizes the personal attention given to the entire operation by citing the work behind the scenes at the drive­-in’s snack bar. “We make our own hamburgers, pick up the buns and pizza shells weekly from a local bakery, and shop for the other groceries our­selves. Sure, we could get the already prepared food, but it’s not as good and we’d have to charge more.” She adds that the entire operation demands hard work. “The films are picked up forty miles away every Friday, then we spend all day splicing from small reels to big ones. On Monday, we do it in reverse and return the films.”

Families are the Ragers’ main customers, so the drive­-in retains its children’s monkey bars and its picnic tables. The drive-in is open Friday through Sunday at five dollars per car. For fifty cents each, pedestrians are welcome to sit at one of the picnic tables and watch the film.

Contrary to popular perception, families have always been the backbone of the drive-in theater industry. During the 1950s, drive-ins actively courted the family trade with wacky promotions and expansive playgrounds. Many promoted dance contests, driving ranges, shuffleboard courts, horseshoe pits, and swimming pools. Others lured young families with laundries, milk warmers, diaper stations, nurseries, and picnic areas. To guarantee a wholesome atmosphere, ushers often patrolled the lots to ensure that patrons engaged in only G-rated activities in the privacy of their cars.

Playgrounds, immensely popular with drive-in patrons, were often quite elaborate. Many drive-ins offered pony rides, ferris wheels, miniature railroads, and wading pools along with the usual swings, slides, and teeter-totters. Today, however, few play­grounds remain because of spiraling insurance costs; most consist only of monkey bars.

Operators did not allow inclement weather to deter customers. Car heaters and rain visors were available, and snacks were proffered by nattily-attired attendants with refreshment carts. Drive-in owners and operators would try just about anything to become a community’s recreational destination. The Dependable in Pittsburgh, for instance, gave patrons a pound of sugar just for attending!

Today, drive-ins are attempting to recapture their popularity with amusing promotions. The Columbia Drive-In on the old Lincoln Highway, near Columbia, Lancaster County, usually closes in October, but last December it opened for a special holiday season, deco­rated with Christmas lights and offering trees for sale. Whether patrons come for the movie or the holiday promotions, it’s good for business.

North of Pittsburgh, the Wexford Starlite Drive-In opened in 1949 with a twenty year lease. It featured a huge playground, including a free roller coaster and, like most drive-ins of the day, was quite successful. The lease was renewed in 1969 for twenty more years, but not again in 1989 because the land by then was more valuable for other purposes. George Welsh had taken over the Starlite in 1987 and had begun building business with weekly car cruises, charity benefits, and other special events. He did it not only to increase income, but because he believed that if teenagers had places to go, they would stay out of trouble. He should know-he’s had four children and thirty-four foster children. Welsh has vowed to find nearby land for a new Starlite, but as yet his dreams remain unfulfilled.

Many of today’s surviving drive-ins are managed by families who operate several theaters. Near Pittsburgh, Italian immigrant Joseph Warren and his family owned both strip and deep coal mines. It was a natural progression from mining to drive-ins. By the 1950s, coal reserves were nearing deple­tion and the demand for coal was waning. The Warrens owned equipment and land, and had the experience to clear it. They opened their first drive-in, the Greater Pitts­burgh, in 1954, featuring the industry’s latest innovation­ – stereo speakers. The Warren family eventually operated seven drive-ins in the Pitts­burgh area and one in New York state.

Only the Greater Pittsburgh Drive-In (featuring five screens and a miniature golf course) is in business. The drive-in is run by Joseph’s son Marty, his wife Frances, and their son Joe. Joe Warren says that business remains good. “We get a lot of families, and on Tuesdays we have five dollar carload night, which is the only night we hire extra security guards. I can’t say we’ll never sell out [to a lucrative real estate offer], but we’ll be here as long as the people keep coming.”

Other theaters are con­trolled by companies that operate a circuit of drive-ins. Norbert Stern opened the Pittsburgh area’s first drive-in in 1939, and with his sons he formed Associated Theatres and developed a chain of more than a dozen drive-ins. The company, later renamed Cinemette, expanded to include hundreds of indoor screens. However, when the company’s drive-in leases began expiring in the 1980s, its outdoor theaters dosed. Most of the lots, still vacant and constantly vandalized, are still for sale.

Because of farsighted individuals such as Joseph Warren and Norbert Stern, Pittsburgh was once known in the industry as “the drive-in theater capital of the world.” In 1950, the area boasted twenty drive-ins, and thirty­-two by 1960, with even more scattered throughout the surrounding region. Most stayed open all year.

Five years ago, Don Fox attracted national media attention by reopening one of his company’s remaining two drive-ins. Fox Theatres of Reading, Berks County, operates nearly one hundred indoor screens in several states and at one time owned a circuit of a half-dozen drive­-ins. Fox’s drive-ins at Sinking Spring, west of Reading, and at Deer Lake, south of Pottsville, had been on the market since the mid-1980s. With no serious buyers in sight, Don decided to revive the Sinking Spring Drive-In in 1989. Two disap­pointing summers followed the first successful one, and the Sinking Spring remained dark in 1992. Confident that Jurassic Park, a quintessential drive-in movie, would lure patrons back, Don opened the drive-in again in 1993, and he says that it will probably open again this summer.

Most theaters acquire films from booking agencies, brokers for the movie industry. Associated Theatres Service in Pittsburgh books features for ten drive-ins and many indoor theaters throughout the Commonwealth. According to Larry Collins of Associated Theatres Service, drive-ins usually cannot obtain first-run movies because they have to compete for them with other theaters. Since drive-in operators are not able to guarantee the gross receipts required to obtain first-run films, they must wait six weeks to show the movie.

Like many twentieth century roadside structures, drive-ins ranged from those designed by professional architects to the practically home-made. Materials like neon and glass block gave drive-ins the glitter and showmanship needed to make a dramatic impression and lure motorists off the road. At the earliest drive-ins, screens were housed in structures similar to the one at the original New Jersey theater. Today, examples of these early drive-in screens are scarce. A good example of this type was lost with the recent demolition of the Shimerville Drive-In, built in the late 1940s, near Allentown.

The introduction of CinemaScope, a film-making technique that required special projection equipment, dra­matically changed the design and appearance of the drive-in movie screen of the 1950s. Screens became prefabricated units anchored to steel structures and usually had no architectural embellishments. (Most drive-ins still in opera­tion have screens of this, or later, vintage.) Sound systems also progressed a long way from Hollingshead’s blast speakers. The defects of this early system quickly became painfully obvious if a theater had close neighbors; noise could be rightfully considered a public nuisance. The intro­duction of individual speakers for patrons to clip to their automobile windows probably ensured the survival of the fledgling industry. However, these individual speakers led to new problems. Drivers often ran over them or drove away with them still attached to the window. The problems of speaker maintenance and loss was not solved until radio sound made individual speakers obsolete in the 1960s.

Despite the dwindling number of drive-in theaters, many companies still service the industry. Projected Sound in Plainfield, Indiana, manu­factures speakers, as does Colorado’s Reed Speaker Company, and Ohio’s Eprad. SPECO, in Kansas, makes special heaters for automo­biles. Although it is doubtful any new drive-ins have opened recently – or ever will again, for that matter­ – companies such as Churchman Tower Service still erect screens, a common need due to “twinning,” or adding an extra screen to double a theater’s offerings. Since many screen towers erected in the 1950s were sheathed in wood or tin, several firms are busy refacing them with steel.

Today, closed and aban­doned drive-ins are all too common along secondary roads across Pennsylvania. A lucky few remain, in relatively good condition, even though they may be for sale. The Tusca Drive-In, on Tuscarawas Road in Beaver, is still im­maculate, right down to the cement-animal lawn decora­tions. Its proprietor obviously hopes for resurrection, not subdivision. At Conneaut Lake, the Lakeside Drive-In fares a bit worse, with a vandalized snack bar and ticket booth. The cement-block screen still stands tall, over­looking the lake, but replacement by summer cottages or condominiums is its most likely fate.

To keep their drive-ins afloat, several operators have resorted to finding daytime uses for their expansive lots. From dawn to dusk, many tracts are used for parking lots, religious services, and, most commonly, flea markets. George Tice, owner of the Woodland Drive-In in West Mifflin, claims to have pioneered the flea market concept in 1962. Always a showman, he would dress as a cowboy so that anyone could find “the man in charge.”

One of the rare rural survivors is the Bar-Ann Drive-In at Portage, northeast of Johnstown. George Washko began building it in 1954, naming it for his daughters Barbara and Peggy Ann. Now eighty-one, he runs it with help from his entire family, including his seven year old great grandson. The Bar-Ann is open Friday through Sunday, for five dollars a car. Friday nights are the most difficult, with local hooLigans causing trouble. Peggy Ann Washko Trimbath says, “We even warn customers over the radio: ‘If you want to watch the movie, don’t come on Friday.'”

The Bar-Ann Drive-In shows family films and attracts many families from as far as Altoona. “For a decent movie like Home Alone we turn cars away,” Trimbath says. She met her husband of thirty-four years when the drive-in opened. He was the ticket collector.

Another success story of sorts is that of the Cross Keys Drive-In. Originally located on Route 30 near New Oxford, it was known for its beautiful roadside marquee decorated with neon and chasing bulbs. After a prosperous run, the theater closed in the late 1980s, scheduled to be replaced by a housing development, “Hollywood Estates.” Regional museums and historical societies were contacted by volunteers working desper­ately to find a new home for the marquee, but it was turned down because it was either too large or too “new.” The State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg recognized both the rarity and the potential of the marquee. The museum’s curators arranged to have it removed and transported to storage, where it now awaits restoration and possible installation in one of the museum’s exhibitions.

Drive-in statistics have varied widely through the years, and are nearly impos­sible to verify today. Trade associations that once tracked the spectacular growth of drive-ins are now defunct or pay little attention to this declining segment of the theater industry. However, estimates compiled by the National Association of Theater Owners illustrate the remarkable rise and decline of drive-ins during the last half­-century: from one hundred in 1941, to twenty-six hundred in 1950, to four thousand and sixty-three in 1958; and decreasing to thirty-five hundred in 1980, and to eight hundred and ninety-nine in 1991. In 1956, Box Office, an industry publication, counted more than five thousand drive­-ins in the United States and Canada, compared to thirteen thousand conventional theaters.

With such rapid growth, it is little wonder the future of the motion picture industry appeared – at least for a little while – to rely on the popular­ity of drive-ins theaters. But operators of the Keystone State’s remaining drive-ins agree that theirs is a labor of love, not a route to fame and fortune. Neighboring New Jersey, the birthplace of the outdoor theater, lost its last drive-in when the Route 35 Drive-In in Hazlet closed at the end of the 1991 season. The land will become – what else? – the site of a new shopping center. In New York this year, a multiplex indoor theater will replace the Westbury Drive-In, the last on Long Island. How will Pennsylvania fare?

Pennsylvania will likely have at least a few drive-ins for the foreseeable future. The surviving theaters seem to be strong, each enjoying a following of loyal customers. And Keystone Staters can help revive – and perhaps even help save – this twentieth century tradition by experienc­ing a movie under the twinkling stars this summer.

 

Drive-In Theater Preservation

Readers may be interested to know more about two organiza­tions that advocate the preservation of drive-in movie theaters.

The Society for Commercial Archaeology (SCA) is the oldest national organization devoted to the study and celebration of the twentieth century commercial built environment and landscape. The SCA publishes an illustrated quarterly newsletter and a biannual journal with informa­tion about roadside architecture and historic highways, among other topics. For additional information, write: Society for Commercial Archaeology, National Museum of American History, Room 5010, Washing­ton, D. C. 20560; or telephone (202) 882-5424.

A relatively new organization, the Drive-In Exchange is a ‘fan­club” for drive-in enthusiasts. The Exchange publishes a newsletter which features historical background, including original advertisements, and current information about drive­-ins. More information is available by writing: Drive-In Exchange, 12827 Cunninghill Cove Rd., Baltimore, MD 21220-1178.

 

For Further Reading

Liebs, Chester H. Main Street to Miracle Mile: American Roadside Architecture. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1985.

Margolies, John, and Emily Gwathmey. Ticket to Paradise: American Movie Theaters and How We Had Fun. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1991.

Segrave, Kerry. Drive-In Theaters: A History From Their Inception in 1933. Jefferson, N. C.: McFarland and Company, Inc., 1992.

 

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ and do not necessarily represent the views of the historical society or the federal government.

 

Brian Butko is editorial assistant for the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, headquar­tered in Pittsburgh. He is a director of the Society for Commercial Archeology and the recently organized Lincoln Highway Association. He is currently working on a book about the Lincoln Highway in Pennsylvania.

 

Rebecca Shiffer is an architec­tural historian for the Mid-Atlantic Regional Office of the National Park Service, Philadelphia. She previously worked for the Historic Preserva­tion Trust of Lancaster County. She is a director and past president of the Society for Commercial Archeology.