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Old drive-ins offer nostalgia, entertainment

Erin McGinn | Friday, September 22, 2006

One of the latest fads appearing in new movie theaters is making going to the movies an experience once again.

In the National Amusements’ Cinema De Lux theaters, there are full service restaurants and bars where patrons can order full meals and have them waiting before they even arrive at the theater. While this is becoming trendy as a high-end movie-going experience, going to the movies used to always be about the experience – as opposed to the carbon-copy theaters that dominate the American movie scene today.

There are still theaters, however, that since the 1930s have made going to the movies an experience that everyone can enjoy – the drive-in.

History of the drive-inThe drive-in movie theater was the product of a young sales manager, Richard Hollingshead, who, while working at his father’s auto products store, had the idea to invent something that combined his two interests: cars and movies.

Hollingshead’s vision was that of an open-air movie theater where patrons could watch the movies without leaving their own cars. He experimented with this idea out on his driveway by mounting a Kodak projector on the hood of his car, projecting the image onto a screen he suspended from trees in his yard and using a radio behind the screen to produce the sound.

He then tested this prototype under various conditions. Sound quality issues stemming from changing weather were tested using a lawn sprinkler as trial rain. He also tested different ways to configure parking schemes as to allow each car a clear view of the screen.

Hollingshead first began by lining the cars in his driveway, which caused sight problems for cars lined up each directly behind the one in front of it. He then determined the spacing needed at various distances and where to place blocks and ramps under the front wheels of cars that were parked further away from the screen.

The first patent for the drive-in theater was issued in 1933, and with $30,000 Hollingshead opened the first drive-in theater in New Jersey. This initial theater used speakers mounted next to the screen, as opposed to individual car speakers that would develop in later designs for these theaters.

Arguably, the most innovative theater to develop during this time was the one created by Edward Brown, Jr. who opened the first “drive-in and fly-in” theater for both cars and small planes. It had the capacity for 500 cars as well as 25 airplanes. An airfield was placed next to the drive-in parking grounds and the planes would taxi into the last row of the theater. When the movies ended, Brown would provide a tow for the planes to be brought back to the airfield.

In the 1970s, many drive-ins began to close. However, most drive-ins were still making money when they closed. The closings were primarily due to rising property costs in spaces occupied by the theaters.

Location, as well as seasonal operation, is often cited as the biggest problem to face drive-ins. By the 1990s, there were less than 600 drive-ins left operating in the nation. As of 2003, there are currently 432 drive-in theaters still operating throughout the country.

At the Tri-Way Drive-InIndiana is known as the “Crossroads of America” due to the fact that more major highways intersect in the state of Indiana than in any other state in America. Indiana also contains more miles of interstate highway per square mile than does any other state – even though Indiana is only the 38th largest state in the country. This may help to explain the traditional popularity of drive-in theaters in the Hoosier state.

During the late 1950s, the heyday for the drive-in cinemas, there were more than 120 theaters located in Indiana alone. Over the years, more than 82 percent of those theaters have gone dark or have been demolished. Currently, Indiana is one of America’s top ten drive-in states with 23 theaters still in operation. Located less than half an hour away from Notre Dame, in Plymouth, Ind., is one of these valuable movie theater treasures, operating every weekend and showing six new releases.

The Tri-Way Drive-In opened in 1953 with only a single screen. Tri-Way was the theater’s original name – its name did not come from its now-three screens, but rather from its location near three major highways (30, 31 and 6). The Tri-Way can accommodate over 500 cars, has a full-service concession stand and features the famous vintage intermission trailers such as the “dancing hotdogs.”

Alongside the movie theater is the popular Tri-Way Theater miniature golf course, which is the only championship realistic miniature golf course in the area. The golf course also includes an arcade room and a separate concession area.

The 2006 theater season is the 54th consecutive season for the theater. Their season runs April through the end of September and each of their screens is lit-up with double features of current releases. The Tri-Way Theater recently just installed new “technalite” technology on its screens – one of the first drive-ins in the country to undergo this installation – showing a picture two to three times brighter than regular drive-in screens.

With no home game this weekend, consider spending some time at the local drive-in and experience a pastime which is swiftly fading into obscurity.

The double features running this weekend are Gridiron Gang with Talladega Nights, Barnyard with How to Eat Fried Worms and The Covenant with Wicker Man.