What’s old is new again. A new generation of movie-goers has discovered the thrill of seeing a movie under the stars – something their parents or grandparents enjoyed a long time ago.

“When a drive-in opened in a community, it was a major event,” said State Curator Leo Landis, with the State Historical Museum of Iowa. “Many Iowans saw their first fireworks at a drive-in on the Fourth of July, and they catered to the families of the Baby Boom and early Generation X.”

Drive-ins started popping up in Iowa in the 1940s and peaked at nearly 70 in the 1950s and ‘60s. By the 1970s, however, tighter restrictions and higher land prices signaled their decline.

But fast-forward to 2019: Randy Lorenz, who owns the Blue Grass Drive-In near Davenport, said outdoor movies are becoming more popular.    

When his family was on vacation several years ago, he spotted a drive-in and thought, “Why don’t we have one of those in the Quad Cities?’” he said. “I looked into how it works – the financials and the technology – and said ‘Hey, this is something we can do.’”

He opened the Blue Grass five years ago and has seen attendance increase each year at his three screens, which accommodate a total of 450 cars. More than 24,000 people follow the theater on Facebook, “and that number just keeps going up,” he added. “Every year is getting better.”

The first drive-in opened in 1933 in New Jersey when Richard Hollingshead wanted to find more comfortable seating for his mother, who was too large to fit into traditional theater seats.

So he put a projector on the hood of his car and tied a couple of sheets to some trees in his yard. He tinkered with a radio and experimented, over and over, until he came up with the right configuration for the projector, screen and sound.

He opened his first drive-in in May 1933. A second drive-in opened a year later in Pennsylvania, but the idea didn’t really catch on until the arrival of in-car speakers in 1948. A decade later, more than 4,000 drive-ins lit up the country from coast to coast.

The Starlite opened in Waterloo in 1947, followed by the Valle in Newton in 1948, and another Starlite, in Algona, in 1949.

Before the western-themed Corral Drive-In opened in Atlantic, also in 1949, the local paper described its “sapling fences … where attendants will wear jeans, boots, western shirts and hats.”

“In the ‘50s and ‘60s, drive-ins were very popular with families and the Baby Boomer generation,” said Jim Kopp of the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association. “It was a good, cheaper form of entertainment. People could sit in their cars, and they didn’t need a babysitter because they could bring their babies. They even had playgrounds for the kids.”

In those days, most drive-ins were independently owned businesses on the outskirts of town, said D. Vogel, the administrative secretary of the owners association.

“They were mom- and pop-built and they raised a whole family in the drive-in business,” he said. “There were far more drive-ins than indoor theaters in those days. Hollywood was really built on drive-in movie theaters.”

But the idyllic world of drive-ins didn’t last. By the 1970s, movie studios began restricting new releases to indoor theaters because outdoor double- and triple-features limited profit margins. So drive-ins were left with B-listings and adult movies, which shrank their customer base.

As the original drive-in owners began to retire, their children didn’t want to get into the business. With dwindling options, most owners sold their land to developers.

But today, Lorenz and other owners are enticing families back outside.

“It’s a completely different feel than downloading a movie or being at home on a computer,” he said. “Kids come out and play, and families are out walking on the grounds until the movie starts. They’re not on their phones or computers, and they’re actually interacting.”

(This article was provided by the Iowa Culture Wire, a free service of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs.)

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