By George A. Allen

The days of social distancing and face masks drag on and on and we all feel things will never be the same.  So, the question becomes, what will change and how will it change?

Thinking of that I recalled a picture in the paper recently of the drive-in graduation ceremony at one of the high schools in town that looked very similar to the drive-in movies we used to go to almost every weekend.  Of course, drive-in movies disappeared from Tallahassee years ago, but is it possible they may make a comeback in response to the requirements of avoiding the COVID 19 virus? 

Drive-in theaters went out of business in Tallahassee in the mid-1970s when VCR cassette tape movies became available and everyone could watch them in the privacy of their home utilizing their television sets.  Drive-in movies provided a form of privacy too but you had to get in your car and drive to another site to enjoy that privacy.  Then you had to contend with a non-air conditioned environment and those pesky mosquitos. 

Still, it could be that given today’s situation of home isolation, a summer night spent at the drive-in brings nostalgic feelings for millions of Americans who grew up listening to the tinny sound coming from the speaker hooked to the car window at their local drive-in theater.

The world’s first drive-in theater opened on June 6, 1933, in  New Jersey. This revolutionary concept transformed automobiles into “private theatre boxes” allowing guests to “smoke, chat, or even partake of refreshments.”

In Tallahassee, The Capitol Drive-In opened May 25, 1948, on South Monroe Street at Four Points with June Haver in “Three Little Girls in Blue”. Business was rough at first and the Capitol reopened as the Drive-In on July 15, 1949, operated by Talgar Theatres Co. with a capacity for 400 cars. In 1953 it was again renamed Capitol Drive-In. It closed in 1975. The screen was destroyed by fire in 1988.

A second drive-in theater, the Perry Highway Drive-In opened April 9, 1953, with Frankie Lane in “Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder” and Robert Stack in “The Bullfighter and the Lady.” The Outdoor Drive-In held 480 cars and was located on Apalachee Parkway. It was torn down in the late 1960s or early 70s to make way for a motel.  The Outdoor Drive-In ran double features only on the weekends during the later period in its history.

According to The Morning Call of Allentown, Pennsylvania, Richard Hollingshead, Jr., was the inventor of the drive-in theater. In 1931, Hollingshead owned and worked in his own automotive supply store called Whiz Auto Products Company.  Always on the lookout for the next great new idea, Hollingshead noted that even though the Great Depression was in full swing, people still found money to attend movies at their local theater. He tested his concept by setting up a 1928 Kodak projector on the hood of his family car and projecting pictures onto a screen nailed to a tree in his yard.

Pleased with the results, Hollingshead sought financial backing from his cousin, Willis Warren Smith, and opened the first drive-in theater. Patrons paid $1 per car or 25 cents per person. Speakers were mounted atop the 60-foot screen but didn’t provide very good sound. It would take years to improve the sound problem at the drive-in. The theater was built in Riverton, New Jersey, and its design included concentric, curved rows titled at a five-degree angle to ensure that everyone had a good view of the screen. (Smith is the grandfather of Judy Welch, a long-time resident of Tallahassee.)

The novelty of watching a movie from your own car was a draw for families who could put the children to sleep in the back seat and enjoy a movie. Viewing a movie from your car also didn’t require you to dress up, a common practice when attending the theater in that era. The problematic sound issue and a depressed economy kept the idea of drive-ins from spreading for the rest of the decade, but after WWII the era of the drive-in movie theater entered its golden age. More than 4,500 drive-in theaters opened between 1948-1955.

Newspaper accounts from the 1950s and ‘60s reported the drive-in also became the quintessential teen hangout. Teenagers loved having a place to congregate and socialize with their friends. Drive-in theaters provided an evening of fun at an affordable price. By the 1970s, the popularity of the drive-in waned. The 1980s brought an explosion of VHS tapes and movie rentals. The transition to digital projection also provided a challenge for theater owners because of the steep price tag at a time when attendance was down. As a result, many theaters began to shut down. Increased land values also pressured many owners to sell their property for development.

However, drive-in theaters are again gaining in popularity according to some.  In fact, June 6 marks National Drive-In Movie Day, and yes, drive-in theaters still exist in Florida.

For a fun throwback evening, or to introduce someone to the under-the-stars experience, several drive-ins have opened in the Orlando area.  The Ocala Drive-In Theatre opened in March 1948, but closed in 2003. John Watzke, who said he always wanted to have his own theater, reopened the drive-in in 2010. Watzke said his passion for movies comes from his family members, who have worked in theaters since 1913. Watzke described going to a drive-in movie as an experience.

“You have families (who don’t know each other) interacting,” he said. “It’s like a time warp when you go to a drive-in. The only time you see people on their phones is if they’re taking pictures. Kids play with one another and people actually talk to each other.”

Watzke said 75% of his customers are 21 to 45 years old. Tickets cost $6 for adults and children ages 6 to 12. Children 5 and under are free. 

“And it’s a double-feature for that same price,” Watzke said. “You’re getting two movies for half the cost of one (in a regular theater).”

For those who haven’t been to a drive-in movie, customers can sit in their cars while watching the movies, which Watzke said are new releases. 

“They sit in their cars, on their cars, in the back of their trucks, or they bring lawn chairs,” Watzke said. “I’ve seen people bring couches in the back of their pickups.”

Watzke said he has regular customers who drive from Tallahassee and Melbourne, mostly because of the value and the fact that movies are more memorable at a drive-in.

“If someone watches a movie in a regular theater, they may remember a few things about it. But at a drive-in, you remember the movie, who you were with, what kind of car you were in and the whole experience.”

If you haven’t been to a drive-in previously, or if you haven’t been in quite some time, and you’re looking for an escape from the house that allows you to socially distance yourself, you might want to give it a try.

Drive-in theaters in the Central Florida area

Other drive-in theaters in Florida