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Drive-In Wellfleet Drive-In Movie Theatre, Welfleet Cape Cod, opened in 1957 and is the last of its kind in Cape Cod, one of about 300 left in the country. © Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism

Re-living the Drive In: A Very American Pastime in Britain

Originating in America, the Drive-In experience is offering a little bit of liberty for Britain as the lockdown eases
By Daniel M Byway
Published on July 17, 2020

There's something undeniably American about drive-in cinemas. It isn't just that the first drive-in screenings were hosted on American soil, as early as 1915. It's the drive-in's "Googie Style", that futuristic, 'streamline' space age motif originating from Southern California, which accompanied America's expanding automotive industry through the late 1940s to the '70s. It's the burgers, fries and soda that make the perfect accompaniment to cinema under the stars. It's essentialy the fusion of some of America's most iconic cultural exports - cars, cuisine, and Hollywood. But there's something more about the drive-in that resonates today; somehow, it's about liberty. The freedom to set up a cinema screening pretty much anywhere, the freedom to drive there in your own car, the freedom to enjoy the screening from the safety and familiarity of your own motor - and for many in a lockdown-filled 2020, the freedom to go out at all.

As lockdown has been easing in the UK, the drive-in has become an ideal way to go out, but with the security of staying in. It's a ready made way of staying socially distant, whilst somehow coming together, and drive-in experiences have popped up seemingly out of nowhere across the UK. The concept is now being extended to drive-in concerts, drive-in opera and stage screenings and even drive-in church services. That freedom I mentioned, the capacity to locate a drive-in pretty much anywhere, has led to country estates, castles, car parks and fields across Britain being developed in quick speed into open air cinemas. And although today's drive-ins benefit from modern tech; digital screens, connected in-car speaker systems, mobile phone app-driven food ordering; it's that simple sense of freedom which echoes back to the heyday of the drive-in when it became a staple of American culture.

One of the first recorded examples of a drive-in cinema experience was the Theatre de Guadalupe in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Opened in 1915, alongside an auditorium, places for 40 or more cars were located around the theater grounds. Another outdoor movie screening took place in Texas in 1921, but it wasn't until 1930s that the concept of a drive-in became a commercial reality. Patented in New Jersey, Richard M. Hollingshead, Jr's drive-in theater opened on June 6, 1933, in Pennsauken Township, NJ. Advertising material for the drive-in said "The whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are". Although Hollingshead's drive-in was sold after just three years due to a lack of profit, the idea took off, with at least 15 drive-in movie theaters in America by the start of WWII.

By 1958, there were over 40,000 drive-ins located across the US. Rising car ownership, alongside the increasing movement of the population towards suburban and rural environments, meant that it was cheaper to attend a drive-in than venture into city centers. The popularity of the drive-in was augmented by the Baby Boom generation; with families seeing the drive-in as more family-friendly and informal than the conditions of seated cinemas. During the '60s, the drive-in became part of a way of life in America, and were increasingly advertized as family entertainment centers, with some drive-ins accompanied by mini-golf courses, arcades, playgrounds, swimming pools and even motels. One of the largest drive-ins, based in New York, was said to cater for up to 2,500 vehicles and covered over 29 acres.

Luna Drive In Cinema Luna Cinema has adapted to a Drive-In experience during 2020

What would eventually see the decline of drive-ins was the improving quality of home entertainment. From the '70s, as more American households gained color televisions, cable TV grew, and with VCRs and a developing video rental market, the flexibility offered by the drive-in was being replaced by the greater attraction of staying at home. As the 20th century continued, the drive-in turned to more niche presentations, and eventually became seen as a 'retro' concept for those with nostalgic pangs for '60s life.

Fast forward to 2020, however, and the Covid-19 pandemic has again highlighted the flexibility and freedom associated with the drive-in. Companies who were previously airing outdoor movie screenings have been able to quickly adapt to offer the drive-in experience instead. With 21st century technology, the experience is as seamless as attending any cinema, with the added bonus of social distancing. Is it likely to see a long term re-emergence of the drive-in? Probably not. But for a nation that's been in lockdown, Britain needs to feel a little liberty, and a very American Pastime is offering just that.

There are lots of drive-in cinemas opening up across the UK. Here are just a few:

Luna Drive In Cinema - www.lunadriveincinema.com
Sunset Cinema - www.sunsetcinema.uk
The Drive In - www.thedrivein.london/
At The Drive In - www.atthedrive.in
Rooftop Film Club - rooftopfilmclub.com/london/venue/alexandrapalace/
Star and Mouse - starandmouse.com

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