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Still, drive-ins flourished. What other place kept the kids occupied in a playground until show time and allowed them make as much noise as possible in the back seat without bothering anyone else?
Drive-in construction peaked around 1960, when there were more than 5,000 theaters in operation in big cities and small towns around the country. The beginning of the end, according to drive-in expert Susan Sanders, was the passage of the federal Uniform Time Act of 1966, better known as Daylight Savings Time.
"That was the death knell because, especially in the South and Southwest, families had to wait until after 9 p.m. before it got dark," says Sanders, who, with husband Don, has published two successful coffee-table tomes, The American Drive-In Movie Theatre and Drive-In Movie Memories.
Meanwhile, the growth of television was eating away at the adult audience. Gradually, drive-ins became the domain of teenagers, who wanted to see raunchier fare while they fooled around in their four-wheeled "passion pits." The era helped give birth to such sub-genres as the hot-rod movie and the surfing flick. Russ Meyers' Vixen, filmed in his trademark "Bosomania," made a killing playing for two years at an Ohio drive-in, according to Sam Patton, former owner of the late Blast-Off Video and a schlock film aficionado, who fondly remembers sneaking into drive-ins in the trunk of a friend's car.
"You could have shown people eating cardboard for two hours and the teens wouldn't have cared, because it was all about the sex," he says.
During his high-school years, Clay Croker, like many of his contemporaries, was a drive-in regular. "It's where my girlfriend and I would go to ... um, you, know ...," he trails off. "Anyway, that was a time when I didn't really care what bad movie was playing."
And yet, after Croker left college, the drive-in seemed outdated, an entertainment format that had long been eclipsed by such technological triumphs as video games, cable TV and the multiplex. The open-air theaters that had given post-boomers so many of their formative experiences were passe, obsolete, over-the-hill. In a word, the drive-in was simply no longer cool.
The decline of the drive-in began in the 1970s, toward the end of the exploitation era. By the early '80s, with the advent of the VCR, the industry was officially on the ropes. Those theaters that didn't sell out or go under were reduced to showing skin flicks and hosting weekend flea markets.
"If it weren't for swap meets, this industry wouldn't have survived," says Oldknow, who says the Starlight made ends meet during the lean years by showing X-rated films.
The other major factor in the near-demise of the drive-in was far more mundane: real estate. As American cities began to expand into the suburbs, even profitable drive-ins became less valuable than the property on which they sat. Many theaters became run-down because their owners didn't want to invest more money into a business they were planning to sell.
Sanders has traveled through 42 states searching for drive-ins. And he's been dismayed to find that, in towns where a theater no longer exists, often someone will tell her, "Oh, that used to be where the Wal-Mart is."
"I don't know whether they have specifically targeted old drive-in properties," she says, "but it makes sense that, with an average of 10 to 12 cleared acres, drive-ins offer an ideal footprint to a big chain store like Wal-Mart."
The huge California-based Pacific Theater chain, which once owned 150 drive-ins, sold all but two as it essentially morphed into a commercial real-estate holding company. New Jersey, the birthplace of the drive-in, has none left.
Metro Atlanta saw theaters close on Stewart Avenue, Bankhead Highway, Cobb Parkway, Buford Highway and a dozen other sites. The Starlight Six had little choice but to soldier on. It's location on Moreland Avenue -- surrounded by a truck depot, a cemetery, a landfill and public housing projects -- has never aroused any interest from developers.
Then along came
the nostalgia craze, and drive-ins that had been hanging on by their fingernails found themselves in the black for the first time in a decade. The most successful of the theaters even found themselves able to book first-run Hollywood films. A handful of entrepreneurs have taken a chance by re-opening drive-ins that had shut down -- or even building new ones from the ground up. Nowhere has this happened more than in Alabama, which has eight drive-ins, half of which are new.
"We're as perplexed as anyone by that trend," Sanders says. "If I had to guess, I'd say they were built by baby boomers who had such a fond feeling about drive-ins that they wanted to build one for their community."
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