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Last Updated: Thursday, 13 October 2005, 10:35 GMT 11:35 UK
Drive-in theatres refuse to fade away
By Matthew Davis
BBC News, Washington

New figures suggest that the drive-in movie theatre is refusing to die in the United States, despite the relentless rise of cinema multiplexes, cable television and a raft of other modern amusements.

Bengies Drive-in near Baltimore, Maryland
The drive-in theatre became part of the American landscape

They were once as much an American icon as apple pie, baseball or the 24-hour diner.

At their peak in the baby boomer years after World War II there were more than 4,000 drive-ins across the US, providing a wholesome way for a car-obsessed society to fill its expanding leisure time.

Fuelled by the advent of the VCR, the rising cost of land and a growing reputation as teenage "passion pits", the drive-in's popularity went into dramatic decline in the 1970s and 80s.

Today there are fewer than 500 still in operation.

Yet while their heyday has long-since faded to a nostalgic memory, recent years have seen new flickerings of life in the industry.

Once condemned as obselete, drive-ins are increasingly being seen as a window onto a golden era, a family-friendly alternative to cineplexes and other forms of commercialised entertainment.

They are springing up all over the US, not in great numbers, but at least 40 since 1990. More than 20 other venues have added new screens in that time.

Industry experts say the drive-in is holding its ground, refusing to die.

'Wholesome retreat'

Jennifer Sherer, CEO of Drive-On-In Inc, says: "In a time when the unemployment rate and war stories dominate the news, people see the drive-in as an escape.

Car with registration plate reading 'drive-in'
1933, Richard Hollingshead Jr opens first drive-in in Camden New Jersey
1941, RCA develops the in-car speaker
1949, Drive-In Movie Association lobbies against daylight savings movement
1950, In-car heaters allow many drive-ins to stay open year-round
1958, Drive-in count reaches it height with over 4,000 drive-ins
Source: Drive-ins.com

"The drive-in represents a simpler time, even to people who did not experience the drive-in heyday first hand.

"For me, the drive-in conjures up images like ones in Happy Days. As our world becomes more hectic and less safe, the more the drive-in becomes a wholesome retreat from it."

But staying afloat in a niche market is no easy ride for business owners. Operators who survived the difficult years are re-investing in multiple screens and modern FM radio sound to attract new punters.

Playgrounds, miniature golf, and other forms of family entertainment have reappeared in many to compete for a greater share of the family entertainment dollar.

Yet it is not just young families and nostalgic grandparents keeping the drive-in alive in the age of new media entertainment.

Daylight threat

In 2003 and 2004, groups of dedicated individuals began to organized so-called "guerrilla drive-ins" and "guerrilla walk-ins" in parking lots and empty fields.

Big Sky drive-in in Texas
More than 40 new drive-ins have opened since 1990, like this one in Midland, Texas

Showings are often organised online, and participants meet at specified locations to watch films projected on bridge pillars or warehouses.

One of the best-known guerilla drive-ins is the Santa Cruz drive-in in California. Organisers say they want to "reclaim public space".

In Berkeley, also in California, the group Mobile Movie organises similar activities and says it is trying "to bring back the forgotten joy of the great American drive-in".

Ironically, it is new technology - once the greatest threat to the drive-in - that is fuelling such experiments.

Jennifer Sherer says that while the phenomenon remains relatively obscure, decreasing video projector costs will likely lead to an increase in popularity of this type of movement.

Yet perhaps the greatest threat to the survival of the drive-in comes from the US Congress which has adopted a plan to extend daylight savings time by a months each year as part of a sweeping new energy plan.

From 2007 Americans will turn their clocks forward one hour on the first weekend of March, instead of April, and "fall back" in early November instead of the final weekend of October.

If the change forces families to head to the multiplex rather than keep the kids up for an extra hour, there are fears it could turn the lights out for good on an American institution.

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