Brian Francis grew up watching drive-in movies from his back deck. Now he runs the show at the 99W Drive-In.
Photo by Mike Teegarden
Fans flock once again to nostalgic cinematic icons
By Dianna Troyer
Brian Francis still remembers the fascination he felt as a toddler watching the movie “101 Dalmatians” from the back deck of his house at his family’s 99W Drive-In theater.
“Like a lot of the old drive-in families, I grew up in the house on the property,” says Brian, 55, the third generation to own and operate the 99W in Newberg, Oregon. “Watching that movie is my earliest memory. An underground wire ran from the projection booth to the deck, so we could hear the film. Now, our kids watch movies from the deck.”
Brian’s grandfather J.T. Francis built the 300-car slot theater off Highway 99W in 1953, when drive-ins were rising in popularity.
Drive-ins thrived until the late 1970s and 1980s, when attendance waned and thousands of theaters closed nationwide.
The Francis family weathered the downturn and now is enjoying audiences’ renewed interest in the nostalgic entertainment icon.
“There are so few left that fans go to drive-ins because they’re afraid they’ll close,” says Brian. “Plus, people like nostalgia. Drive-ins have come such a long way, with technology changing recently from film reels to digital, but one thing is still the same: They’re a place to make memories.”
Drive-ins had record attendance in 2013, says April Wright, director of an 85-minute movie documentary, “Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the American Drive-In Movie.”
Released last year, her film celebrates the outdoor cinema as an icon of American culture.
“A cultural movement is emerging among drive-in enthusiasts and families who want to return to simpler times and values,” says April, who visited the 99W while making her film. “Although the number of drive-ins has declined, they’re still an integral, vital and cherished part of our culture. Some have as many as 30,000 Facebook fans.”
Last year, Honda also shined a national spotlight on drive-ins. The car company launched Project Drive-In, a campaign to help owners make the costly conversion to new digital technology because studios are phasing out celluloid film.
A old-style drive-in movie speaker at the 99W Drive-In Theater. No longer used, theater goers now tune in with their car radio for a higher sound quality.
Photo by Mike Teegarden
The project has donated 10 free digital projection systems—each valued at about $80,000—to drive-ins, including the 99W. Fans voted online for the winners.
“We’re blessed and grateful to Honda and everybody who voted for us last summer,” says Brian, who began using the new system in March.
He strives to blend the newest technology with vintage cinema.
“The digital picture is so bright and clear, and the colors are vibrant,” he says. “But for old time’s sake, we still run 20 minutes of vintage intermission reels from our 35mm library we’ve collected for 60 years. The projector we’ve used since 1953 still runs great with a few drops of oil for routine maintenance.”
Like Brian, April appreciates new technology and nostalgia, merging both in her movie to tell why drive-ins peaked in the late 1950s at about 5,000, but declined to fewer than 400 by the 1980s.
“Their shifts in popularity tell the story of how American culture and families evolved during the past 60 years,” says April, who worked on her film for seven years, crisscrossing the continental United States to visit 500 open or abandoned drive-ins.
Her childhood memories watching movies under the stars in Illinois and her admiration of drive-in architecture motivated her.
The completion of her film coincided with the 80th anniversary of the invention of drive-ins.
The Rise and Demise
Compelled to combine his love of cinema and cars, Richard Hollingshead Jr., a Camden, New Jersey, businessman, invented the drive-in. In 1932, he nailed a sheet between trees in his yard and propped a movie projector on his car hood. After receiving a patent in 1933 for an arrangement of tiered ramps for cars at an outdoor theater, Hollingshead opened the first drive-in theater in nearby Pennsauken with 400 car slots.
Other drive-ins soon opened.
Infused with an infatuation for cars and movies as predominant forms of entertainment, Americans flocked to drive-ins from the 1940s through the 1960s.
“A product of post-World War II optimism, the drive-in theater emerged as the perfect blend of entertainment and our car culture,” says April. “Drive-ins became an affordable destination for couples on a date or families with noisy children.”
Tim Delaney, a sociology professor at State University of New York, Oswego, says, “The ’50s was a unique and innocent decade when people felt happy and cherished the freedom and comfort their cars offered. They also loved the inexpensive, safe, relaxing entertainment of watching movies outdoors. Drive-ins reflected our societal values and norms at that time.”
During their heyday in 1958, about 5,000 drive-ins were in business, says April.
But by the late ’60s and ’70s, U.S. culture began to change drastically, causing drive-in attendance to decline.
“By then, televisions were in many homes, influencing how families spent their time,” says April. “During the early ’80s, people began spending their leisure time with computers, video games, cable and home video.”
Left, Sarah DeBois, 16, and Armin Trujillo, 17, both of Beaverton, Oregon, munch on popcorn prior the start of the movie at the 99w Drive-In.
Photo by Mike Teegarden
Economic factors also contributed to drive-in closures.
During the 1980s, big box stores and cinema complexes gained a foothold, replacing mom-and-pop businesses such as drive-ins, Brian says.
“We survived by building a two-screen indoor cinema in 1983 next to the drive-in so we could be in business during winter, when the drive-in was closed,” he says.
Drive-in owners also supplemented their income by renting their grounds from spring through fall for flea markets, craft shows, car shows, film festivals or concerts.
From 1978 to 1988, more than 1,000 drive-in screens closed, according to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association.
“Closings were common for several reasons,” says D. Edward Vogel, administrative secretary of the association. He grew up with drive-ins. His stepfather, Jack Vogel, an architect-engineer, designed and helped build more than 300 drive-ins, with D. Edward accompanying him on business trips.
“As land values increased, many drive-in owners sold their property because developers offered them more money than they could earn running drive-ins,” D. Edward says. “Also, aging owners wanted to retire. Obtaining first-run product became increasingly difficult, too.”
The number of drive-ins has stabilized at 357 with 604 screens, according to the association.
“Right now, we’re holding on,” says D. Edward, who runs Bengies, a 750-slot drive-in open since 1956 in Baltimore.
It has the largest screen in America at 52 feet by 120 feet.
“I wish there were more drive-ins, but it’s heartening to see renewed enthusiasm for those still in business,” he notes.
Implementation of digital technology “is definitely the biggest change in presentation since the conversion from silent to sound pictures in 1929,” says Brian.
Costs of digital conversion have driven some drive-in owners out of business. In Globe, Arizona, Bobbie Hollis, longtime owner of the Apache Drive-In, closed last September, citing an inability to buy a new system.
Other owners have financed the new systems with lease options, bank loans and creative fundraising. A lease-to-own option on a used projector enabled Jeff Mexico to keep the Motor Vu Drive-In open last summer in Dallas, Oregon.
Movies now arrive on an external hard drive. An access code on the thumb drive allows the movie to be played on the digital projector.
Photo by Mike Teegarden
“I didn’t want to use crowd-funding resources, so I did a gift card digital upgrade promotion for the drive-in and two indoor theaters I was improving in Stayton and Albany,” he says. “It raised about $20,000. The cards were basically a zero-interest loan from a massive amount of people. That amount, along with sales of other businesses, provided cash to buy the digital system.”
The Motor Vu is a destination on warm nights.
“During mid-summer, our 435 slots are usually full,” says Jeff, 50, who quit his corporate job with Hewlett-Packard in Corvallis, Oregon, in 2002 to run theaters. “I’m an average guy who wanted to give this a try, and it’s been worthwhile.”
At the 99W, Brian and his family foresee a bright future and are adding about 40 more car slots this summer.
“The 99W is a beloved local landmark and still attracts people from the region who want a nostalgic evening,” says Brian. “As long as people are passionate about preserving drive-ins and supporting the snack bar, they’ll continue.
“For me, it’s in my family and in my blood. I don’t want to do anything else. My wife and children can come to work with me. My first jobs were here, picking up the trash and working at the snack bar. Who knows, when our kids are grown, they might run it.”
Based on her research, April is optimistic about the future of drive-ins’.
“People still believe this American icon is worth saving for generations to come,” she says.
Drive-ins have a timeless appeal for professor Tim Delaney, who often went to the Finger Lakes Drive-In near his hometown of Auburn, New York, when he was in high school and college.
“They still offer entertainment for all ages,” he says. “What’s better than going to a movie with friends, family or a date while communing with nature? No one shushes you for talking on your cell phone or texting. The kids can be noisy or fall asleep in the car. Drive-ins are still wonderful.”
Spud Drive-In on Idaho Bucket List
Old Murphy greets visitors to the Spud Drive-In near Driggs, Idaho.
Photo by Dawnelle Mumm
With its iconic tan 2-ton potato mounted on a 1946 Chevrolet flatbed truck, the Spud Drive-In ranks high on an Idaho bucket list.
“It’s called Old Murphy,” Manager Dawnelle Mumm says of the truck parked at the drive-in off Highway 33 near Driggs in eastern Idaho. “People stop to take their picture with it year-round.”
Built in 1953 in the rural Teton Valley, the famous drive-in was even referenced in a question on the TV show “Jeopardy:” “What state has a drive-in with a giant potato on a truck?”
Dawnelle, 63, who has operated the Spud since 1987, says tourists and regular patrons keep the nostalgic 170-slot drive-in busy in the summer, when it is open nightly.
“I know exactly what our regular customers want on their burgers,” Dawnelle says. “It’s great to see them every week.”
To pay for a used digital projector in 2012, the owners took out a loan.
“Two-thirds of the loan has been paid off with fund-raisers and T-shirt sales,” Dawnelle says.
Besides showing movies and selling season passes, income is generated from renting the 8-acre grounds for family reunions, concerts, car shows and flea markets. Local businesses also buy advertising space beneath the screen.
“Strong community support will keep it open,” Dawnelle says. “It’s been a popular part of the valley for decades.”
Milton-Freewater Drive-In is Spiess Family Hobby
Photo courtesy of Spiess family
Costly setbacks have failed to discourage Mike Spiess and his wife, Lorie, owners of the Milton-Freewater Drive-In Theater, in Oregon, 8 miles south of Walla Walla, Washington.
They dealt with every drive-in owner’s nightmare in 2008 when a windstorm blew down their screen tower.
“That was the first year we were in charge of day-to-day operations after my parents semi-retired from running it,” recalls Mike, who teaches sixth grade and coaches high school football. Lorie works full time as an office manager at an eye clinic. “The drive-in is our family hobby.”
In 2011, Oregon drinking water laws required them to drill a new well. Last year, they made the costly conversion to a digital projector and sound system.
“The shift in technology has been challenging, but well worth it,” says Mike. “We have by far the biggest, brightest screen in the area. Being digital has also allowed us to show first-run movies regularly.”
Their customer base extends to Pendleton and Hermiston, Oregon, and the Tri-Cities in Washington.
Built in 1953, the drive-in has been in Mike’s family for 53 years.
“Dad, who’s now 83, and his brother Lowell bought it in 1961,” says Mike. “It supported our family in the 1970s. With our customers’ continued support, we’ll be able to keep the gates open.”
Skyline Celebrates 50 Years
Dorothea Mayes at the entrance to the Skyline Drive-In, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this summer.
Photo courtesy of the Skyline
Disastrous twists of fate cannot keep the resilient Skyline Drive-In closed for long. During the past three years, the theater 80 miles southwest of Seattle in Shelton, Washington, has recovered from devastating winds that ripped the roof off the concession stand, floods, fire and a lightning strike that ruined a new digital projection system.
“Drive-ins will always be a good social experience for families,” says Dorothea Mayes, Skyline’s CEO. “Young parents appreciate the reasonable price to see two movies and are often relieved to not have to hire a sitter to enjoy a night out. Grandparents will continue to take kids to the drive-in to tell of how things were when they were growing up.”
Dorothea, 63, began going to drive-ins in the 1970s after she and her husband moved to the Seattle area.
“There were none where I grew up,” she says. “I fell in love with the whole drive-in atmosphere: the big screen, seeing a movie under the stars, the snack bar food, inexpensive admission, the privacy of the car yet the community of patrons around you, the atmosphere on a warm summer night, snuggling under a blanket on a cool night … all of it. I wound up with a job in the film industry and started booking movies for the drive-ins I was so enamored with.”