The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Down at the Drive-In
Media and transportation seem forever linked. As I wrote in a previous post, the portable camera and the bicycle made a very nice pairing in their early years at the turn of the 20th century. However, bicycle popularity dwindled with the rising availability of automobiles in the 1920s. Movies and cars quickly united to form the iconic American drive-in theater. On June 6, 1933, Richard M. Hollingshead opened up the first “park-in theater,” in Camden, New Jersey. The Automobile Movie Theater, as the venue was called, premiered with a second-run showing of Wife Beware. The novel blending of car and film was warmly received by young couples who longed for alone-time. In addition, married couples jumped at the opportunity to bring the children along for this family-friendly amusement. Drive-in theaters, a.k.a. “ozoners,” began popping up all over the country when word of Hollingshead’s innovation spread. And while the Great Depression and World Wars slowed the advancement of the drive-in, the industry hit its peak in 1958, when the total number of outdoor theaters in America reached 5,000. The first theaters were simple, consisting of the large screen, a parking lot or open field, a film projector and speakers, a snack stand, and restrooms. As the industry grew, however, the architecture of the theaters became highly elaborate, involving murals and flashing neon lights, as seen in Steve Fitch’s Untitled (Drive-In Movie Clown). Theater owners incorporated other activities such as playgrounds, amusement rides, and swimming pools, to maintain customer attention. In addition, some theaters offered domestic conveniences such as laundry and bottle-warming services. Despite so many fun-filled offerings, the drive-in fad eventually declined in the ‘60s, when new technologies in television entertainment caused families to spend more evenings at home. Photographer Steve Fitch was born in 1949, just in time to witness the drive-in glory days. He writes in an essay in Gone: Photographs of Abandonment on the High Plains that his family purchased their first television in 1959, the year that outdoor theater popularity began to wane. As Fitch’s generation grew up and moved on, outdoor theaters were either torn down to be replaced by big-box stores, or left for nature to take its course. Fifteen years later, the photographer captured on film the freshly abandoned theaters as part of Diesels and Dinosaurs, a larger project about American highway culture. In his pictures, parking lots are vacant and neon bulbs begin to fizzle out. Fitch writes that photographers have a tendency to “collect as a hedge against the future” (13), to record human artifacts before they completely vanish. Housed in the Smithsonian American Art Museum Collection, the images from Diesels and Dinosaurs are important to America’s cultural history, as documentation of the short-lived drive-in days. For additional information on the history of the drive-in, and to view more of Fitch’s photographs, check out The American Drive-In Movie Theatre.
Christin Boggs is an Intern at the Smithsonian Photography Initiative.