Peggy Keener: Romance behind the steering wheel

Published 5:01 pm Friday, September 1, 2023

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

Raise your hand if your teenage life was enriched in the yummiest of ways by a good movie at the drive-in theater. Look! All the hands are up!

Yes, those were the days alright. Cars lined up in a manicured former corn field all facing the same direction. It simply didn’t get better than this.

The drive-in theater opened its first parking slots on June 6, 1933, in Camden, New Jersey. Richard Hollingshead was the creator. He charged 25 cents per car, plus 25 cents for each occupant. The viewers waited breathlessly … not for the lights to dim, mind you, because the night had already arrived … as the British comedy, “Wives Beware” flashed up on the big screen.

Email newsletter signup

The concept of watching movies outdoors wasn’t exactly new or even novel. Folks often watched silent films on hastily hung sheets and screens set up on beaches or back yards. Any place with an abundance of sky would do. Sound wasn’t necessary because the audience was usually family … and family made enough noise of their own.

It took the genius of Hollingshead, an auto-parts salesman, to give the car-loving Americans yet another activity they could do while encapsulated in their beloved automobiles. The idea stemmed from a problem. (And isn’t that the way most brilliant concepts are born?) His mother, you see, was a large woman. Actually, she was an immense woman, taking up two theater seats. The only way he could “take” her to the movies was to put her in his front car seat with a 1928 projector sitting on the hood of the car. The screen was a big sheet tied across the yard onto two trees.

Hollingshead’s idea grew. Why couldn’t he, he thought, rig something like this up for more than one car? It took him several more years before he created a ramp system for cars where they were parked at different heights so that everyone could fully see the screen. In May of 1933, he patented this brainstorm-of-an-idea and opened his theater under the stars the next month.

The second outdoor theater started a year later in Orefields, Pennsylvania. A few others followed. But, the concept didn’t really catch on fire until the advent of the in-car speaker in the 1940s. By 1958, America boasted 4,063 drive-ins.

The 50s were really the heyday for outdoor theaters. They offered terrific values for families; even the babies were welcome. And if you wanted a smoke or felt the need to bring along Rufus, the kids’ pet, no problem.

Or how about the newly released hospital patient with a huge cast on his leg or the lady whose hair dyeing venture turned out to be a disaster? All were welcome because all were not seen.

And now we get to the real meat of the story. Because all were not seen! This opened up romance like it had never blossomed before. Here we cannot underrate the importance of the accommodating front bench seat. It was cavernous. Enough for two people to … well, I’ve taken this far enough!

But, such exploits did not go completely undetected, I assure you. Anyone who was walking down the parking aisle on his way to the popcorn concession, knew exactly which cars were spoon fests. The windows were as steamed over as those of a Chinese laundry.

It must be said that I remember that steam. It was pretty darned divine. Well, divine until you realized that in the car parked next to you was your Presbyterian minister. Or the high school principal. Or your “other” steady boyfriend. Or … your mother’s sister! One had to be alert and watch the steam monitor.

Little metal boxes were hung with hooks over the crankable front windows. These were the sound tracks. They didn’t always work. They were pretty tinny and staticky. But, did we care? Only sometimes. You see, the whole point in going to the drive-in theater was simply the titillation of being there.

Eventually crime seeped into the venture when people started to cheat. Little children were squashed down on the floor behind the front seats so they were not counted. I don’t think viewers were actually closed into the trunks, but I couldn’t say. I do remember, however, when the price of the movie was changed. Instead of counting the occupants of the cars, there was just one charge for the single vehicle. This, naturally, led to a contest of how many teens could be smashed into one car. It put the telephone booth contests to shame.

We were married in 1958. The GI Bill was our benefactor, meaning money was really tight. Our firstborn arrived the next year. For two reasons we wouldn’t have dreamed of going to a real movie theater. One: we didn’t have the funds after paying our college tuition. Two: what would we do in an enclosed cinema with a guaranteed crying baby?

Our solution was genius. We removed the two back seats from our used VW Microbus and inserted my rocking chair. Next to that went the bassinet. It worked perfectly. I nursed tiny Jeff, burped him and rocked my way through the entire film. Brilliant! Simply brilliant! And we weren’t even charged for the extra furniture … or for the baby!

The allure of the drive-ins did eventually fade. Grade B movies were often shown, the corn field theaters were not always manicured and the price of land was high. Clearly they were taking up valuable agricultural space where more lucrative crops could be planted. Today only a few remain.

Yet, there are millions like myself who will always remember the charm of sitting under the stars in your own metallic cocoon with your sweetheart … or your newborn … snuggled beside you. Ahhhh……….