At the Drive-In: An Incredible Story Reflecting Rural Americana during the 1950s and 1960s

The following in bold is taken from chapter 8 of my book The Automobile and American Life and provides a context for a far more focused story that follows.

A Night at the Drive-In
For every film classic like “Rebel Without a Cause,” there were ten shot on low budget, largely now forgotten by all except film buffs and those who watch Turner Classic Movies while killing time at the nursing home. Yet, a number of these films have become cult favorites and several, like Thunder Road, or The Blob, starring an up-and-coming Steve McQueen, gained new significance in more recent times. Many of these marginal films became the staple for the drive-in of the 1950s and 1960s, a time when youths were anxious to remove themselves from parental control and search for self-identity. Drive-ins have become an endangered institution, the consequence of changing mores, suburbanization, and a migration to the exurbs. In 1958, there were more than 4,000 drive-ins in America, but by the early 1990s, the number had fallen to about 870. They were a place to meet friends, find entertainment, passion, if one was lucky, and cheap, but often bad food. But on a hot summer’s night, what better a place to spend some time and money. And what if it rained?
The longest running drive-in can be found in Orefield, Pennsylvania, north of Allentown. Shankweiler’s Drive-In was the second drive-in established in America.
[1] It opened during the summer of 1933, after its founder stopped at Richard M. Hollingshead’s theater in Camden, New Jersey on his way back from the Jersey Shore. Hollingshead had opened his operation on June 6, 1933 to 600 people who paid 25 cents per person to see the film Wife Beware. Back in Orefield, Shankweiler hung up a giant sheet between two poles, set up a giant speaker, and was in business.
Soon others would follow, but Hollingshead, who had patented his drive-in idea, would be mired in court for years over infringement suits. Technical innovations, including RCA speakers that would be hung on car windows and in-car heaters for use during the winter months, were incorporated after World War II. American life was never the same with the viewing of such films as The Hideous Sun Demon, I Married a Monster from Outer Space, Cat Women on the Moon, and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
[1] Stephen Bayley, Sex, Drink and Fast Cars (New York: Pantheon, 1986): 52-7.

The following is a Contribution from Ed Garten -- Thank you, Ed!

John, might be blog material if you add some cultural insight to it, but I think you've seen this photo of my Grandfather Garten's drive-in theatre -- the only drive-in in the country and for miles around. Carlos built the theatre around 1952 and it operated until around 1964 when it started to sort of go downhill and when the "beach party" B movies were shown as well as some of the "slasher-type" horror flicks. This photo appears to be circa 1954 given the cars and trucks pictured.

A important element of this theatre, located in a rural area of Summers County, West Virginia, was the way in which it served as a social gathering spot. In this photo note that there is a country-western band playing on top of the concession stand. Typically on an early summer evening, grandfather would invite in local or regional bands who would play until dusk and just before the movies started to play. Note that the cars in front of the band are turned facing the band and not turned toward the screen -- they were listening to the music and then, later, would turn their cars around to watch the movies. Note also the young girls dressed in typically 50s dresses likely congregating to catch up on local high school gossip. Also note that there are several old pick-up trucks with young guys standing in the beds -- often times a local farmer would come to the movies with his family and then also bring a few local farm boys with him.

Below, my cousin, R. D. Williams and grandfather Garten's other grandson, provides some memories of the drive-in. As I recall, although still a child, folks would often mill around prior to darkness and the beginning of the movies and talk "cars" -- comparing their cars with others' cars. Car talk, girl talk, local gossip -- the stuff that made a small Appalachian community what it was. We sometimes forget how the "drive-in theatre" was such a bonding experience for those who lived and grew up in remote and often provincial environments.

Here's cousin R. D.'s memories of the Garten Drive-in Theatre:

Your dad, Johnny ran the original concession stand behind the big screen out front before the concession stand was built. He would take home the left over popcorn each night to feed to the hogs. He made the best hamburgers ( I always had them with just mustard and onions), and mom ran the ticket booth. We always had to check the trunks of cars and watch for "sneak ins" ( walk ins from the road). I went around from car to car selling popcorn and other stuff. Your Uncle Maghee's house was close enough that he actually had a speaker run to his living room with a big picture window in the front, so you could watch the movies from his house. There were swings and see saws in front of the screen for the kids, and every fourth of July they would have a belly bucking contest and a greasy pole to climb with a $20 bill attached to the top, along with sack races and other games. They also had a lot of short shorts along with cartoons and previews before the movie, including negro spirituals, with black angels singing and walking on clouds. On warm summer nights, people would actually lay on the hood of their car and lean against the windshield to watch the movie. I saw the African Queen with Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn 11 times. Sergant York with Gary Cooper and Audie Murphy 8 times. It was a magical place and a special time....The only Drive -in ever in the county. C.B. Garten was a true entrepreneur ahead of his time. Looks like this was circa 1954 or 53. I remember watching some movies from horseback since the barn and camp were adjacent to the drive-in. Ah, those halcion days!!


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