[Slideshow] 80 Years at the Drive-In: Drive-In Project Captures Nostalgic Spaces

Posted on: June 6th, 2013 by Katherine Flynn 11 Comments

The abandoned Frontier Drive-In in Center, Colo.
The abandoned Frontier Drive-In in Center, Colo.

The drive-in theater is an American summertime classic, and June 6 marks the 80th anniversary of the opening of the very first theater in Camden, N.J. in 1933. Park-In Theaters, the brainchild of chemical company magnate Richard Hollingshead, charged 25 cents for each car and an additional 25 for each passenger, and advertised with the slogan, “The whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are.”

A number of these nostalgic spaces are still in operation in the U.S. (as of 2012, the number stood at 368), but abandoned drive-ins also dot the American landscape, their weathered screens and dilapidated ticket booths serving as reminders of a bygone era. Craig Deman, a Santa Monica, Ca.-based photographer, has made it his mission to document these remnants in 10 different states over four years. His images are both evocative and haunting.

“For me, abandoned drive-ins just kind of scream out,” he says, adding that he still has vivid memories of seeing movies like Mary Poppins in his pajamas as a child. “From a photographic perspective, their sheer scale and the environments that they’re located in, with the backdrops of landscapes -- it’s just awesome for me.”

The project required a heavy amount of legwork, with Deman doing all of the research necessary to ensure that he would have full access to drive-ins located on private property (most, but not all, of the drive-ins that he shot are no longer in use.) He shot with both a DSLR and a medium-format film camera, sometimes spending the night in his car to capture the perfect early-morning light.

Deman completed the project in December of last year, and is currently working with several galleries and museums to put together a showcase of these images. He’s hoping to eventually incorporate the drive-ins into a larger body of work called “Endangered Icons.”

Scroll through images from the Drive-In Project below, and watch this space in the coming weeks for more stories on historic drive-ins around the country.

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Katherine Flynn

Katherine Flynn

Katherine Flynn is an assistant editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys coffee, record stores and uncovering the stories behind historic places. Follow her on Twitter at @kateallthetime.


11 Responses

  1. SherryRobs

    June 7, 2013

    I don’t remember the last movie I saw at a drive-in, but I do remember going to a double feature of Patton and MASH. Individually, great movies, but the combination was a bit jarring!

  2. Alexandra Wolfe

    June 7, 2013

    “Men in Black” at the Westbury Drive-in Theater on Long Island in New York. The theater opened in 1954 and closed in 1998. We loved the whole idea of the place: movies al-fresco and a whole social scene that happened quite apart from the actual show. A friend once recounted how he and his siblings would get piled into their family car in pajamas so that after falling asleep, they could be easily transferred to bed when they got home – Such a perfect window into growing up in suburbia during the second half of the 20th century.

  3. Richard Randall

    June 7, 2013

    Last seen Drive In movie was Long Long Trailer w Lucy Ball 1953

  4. Ashlee

    June 22, 2013

    I’ll never forget my parents taking my brother and I to the Ben Hur Drive In in Crawfordsville, Indiana. They would fold the backseat of our blazer down and line the back with blankets, we always wore our PJs, and mom would pop a giant tub of popcorn to sneak in.
    I know we saw Rodger Rabbit and Hocus Pocus… I can’t remember the others.

  5. Sylvia Dohnal

    June 23, 2013

    My local drive-in was the Rte. 66 on Mannheim(Rte. 45 at Rte. 66) just outside Chicago. I remember a school chum who lived directly behind it and watched the movies sans sound.
    It closed in the 60’s and was replaced by a shopping center.

  6. Jean McKee

    June 23, 2013

    We have three in Connecticut and they are listed in the Sunday Hartford Courant of June 23rd.

  7. Mary Sanchez

    June 25, 2013

    The photographs that Craig Deman took were very good and kind of sad. I wonder if somehow any of the relics from these old abandoned drive-ins could be salvaged and put in a drive-in museum! I think it would be a very good way to show and preserve that part of American history! Sometimes I think back to my childhood and remember all the good times that my family had at the drive-in! We saw a lot of great movies!

  8. Robbi

    June 25, 2013

    Such found memories of wearing PJ’s, seeing Walt Disney movies such as Big Red, Old Yeller etc. and falling asleep in the back of the station wagon. Also turning the teen years sneaking extra teens into the drive-in either below the dashboard covered with jackets or in the trunk (probably unsafe)!

  9. Jan Grimm

    June 26, 2013

    Memory Lane! I too have memories of going to the drive-in in our station wagon in pajamas – cheap entertainment for a large family. I was startled to see the “Rubidoux” picture – it was a hang-out in my high school days! Great fun. More recently, my husband and I would frequent the Santa Maria, Ca. drive-in – quite an experience when the coastal fog roles in. We actually sat through an entire movie in which we only saw the first and last 10 minutes! One of my dreams in life is to restore a drive-in to offer the same experiences I had growing up to future generations. Thanks for the memories.

  10. Jaye MacAskill

    June 27, 2013

    My husband and I try to go to the drive-in whenever something half-watchable is there. In the San Diego area we still have the Bay Drive-In in Imperial Beach and the Santee Drive-In.

  11. Mike

    June 28, 2013

    A family friend of ours invited our help at the refreshment counter one night at this drive-in outside of Warren, PA. This was in the mid ’60’s. At closing time, he asked “were was the state tax money”? No one told us about collecting it and needless to say we weren’t asked to help anymore. We had a different perspective that night of drive-ins.