July 31, 2006

Drive-in movies make a comeback

By Holly McKenna

AVERILL PARK, New York -- It's a smokers' and drinkers' paradise where pajama-clad children and crying babies are welcome and bug spray is essential: The drive-in movie theater is making a muted comeback in the United States.

While its not quite a return to the heyday of the 1950s, when there were more than 4,000 outdoor theaters across the country, 20 new drive-in cinemas have opened up during the past year, taking the national total to 420.

Jessica and John Catlin began watching outdoor movies when they were children and they now drive their red pick-up truck to the 54-year-old Hollywood Drive-In Theater in Averill Park, 30 miles from New York state capital Albany, most weekends.

They bring their 2-month-old daughter Jadyn and 9-year-old son Jacob and like the way the drive-in can cater to all ages -- they were able to change Jadyn's diaper in the car, as Jacob sat glued to "Pirates of the Caribbean 2."

"We like being able to be in our own vehicle so we don't disturb others," said John Catlin, adding that he enjoys being out under the stars during summer.

The family-friendly atmosphere is a stark contrast to the dark days of the drive-in between the 1960s and 1990s when many were closed and others began showing X-rated movies in a last-ditch bid to attract customers. There are no longer any pornographic drive-ins.

"The drive-ins are coming back due to the value they have to offer," said Walt Effinger, president of the Baltimore-based United Drive-In Theater Owners Association (UDITOA).

"You get two movies for one low price," he said, referring to the practice of drive-ins screening two movies a night for one admission charge.

The "double bill" can be a children's movie with an adult movie, two children's features or two adult films.


Effinger, who owns a drive-in, believes the future of the outdoor theaters is promising because of the experience they offer.

Movie-goers can take their own food and drink -- they don't have to sneak it in, like many do at indoor theaters -- and can also take home comforts like pillows and blankets.

At the Averill Park Hollywood Drive-In people play baseball and football as they wait for the movie to start, teen-agers are able to congregate away from their families and lawn chairs dot the parking lot.

Fifty-year-old commercials for the concession stand and an old-fashioned mosquito killer appear on the screen before the movies. Bug sprays or citronella candles are needed to combat the battalion of bugs because many theaters are in heavily wooded country areas.

One of the downsides at the drive-in is the long line at the bathroom during intermission. There are often too few stalls and at older theaters many are dirty and haven't been updated since the drive-ins opened decades ago.

Patrons used to listen to movies from speaker boxes that attached to the car window, but now they tune into a special radio frequency, and instead of being charged per car movie-goers now pay per person an average of $7.

"Our business is all weather-dependent," said Frank Fisher, owner of the 400-vehicle Hollywood Drive-In and a board member for the UDITOA. "The summer has to be good for us to have a decent season."

Karen Dapper and her family drove 45 minutes to the Hollywood Drive-In from their home in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

"You get two movies for the price of one and you can talk in your car," Dapper said. "I like to be outside for the experience."