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Drive-in movie theaters turn 75. Catch one while you can.

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Classic cars park in front of the screen tower of Jim Kopp's Raleigh Road Outdoor Theatre. (Photo courtesy of Jim Kopp)

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Richard M. Hollingshead, III, son of the inventor of the drive-in, and his wife, Donna, meet Jim Kopp, at this year's drive-in theater owner convention in February. (Photo courtesy of Jim Kopp)

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Patrons last year watch the newly-released "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" at the drive-in. (Courtesy of The Southern California Drive-In Movie Society)

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In many places, the screen towers of abandoned drive-ins still remain. (Photo by Jennifer Sherer Janish)

Richard M. Hollingshead Jr. was a manager at his father’s auto product company when he imagined the first drive-in movie theater. “It was the middle of the Depression. Things were going badly. He wanted to invent something that would help that a bit,” said his son, Richard M. Hollingshead, III, now 83. Legend has it that his rather large mother, who had trouble fitting into seats at indoor movie theaters, was also an inspiration.

Mounting a projector on the hood of his car in his driveway, Hollingshead Jr. devised and patented a system of ramps to position cars so that they would not block one another’s view.

His son remembers the excitement of helping build the first drive-in in Camden, N.J., when he was 9. “I held the fence posts, and they poured the concrete,” he said.

With that, an American classic was born. On June 6, 1933, the Camden Drive-In opened to nearly a full house, heads spilling out of windows and trunks. For the price of a quarter a person, visitors enjoyed the second-run British comedy “Wife Beware.”

While the movie industry has gone through major changes since then, a few hundred drive-ins across the country have survived, or been revived, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the outdoor theater this year.

“There’s something magical about the drive-in theater, where you have the large screen and you’re in your car with your family and friends underneath the stars,” said Jim Kopp, owner of a drive-in in Henderson, N.C. Though special movie nights and giveaways will be among the anniversary celebrations at many theaters, Kopp is aiming for something glitzier: he hopes to raffle a diamond necklace for the occasion.

Once dotting the landscape as a mainstay of roadsides and small towns, the drive-in is a defining symbol of American post-World War II culture. The business grew with the baby boom, peaking at just over 4,000 theaters in 1958, according to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association.

Back then, families flocked to be entertained inside their newly purchased Chevys. Cheap-thrill B-movies from westerns to horror to tawdry flicks also made their name on the drive-in circuit, where teenagers’ focus wasn’t always on the screen.

“It is this sort of symbol of freedom. They came at a time when Americans were optimistic,” said April Wright, a filmmaker who has crisscrossed the country to document more than 400 drive-ins for her upcoming film.

For a while, though, the business of drive-ins was less hopeful. With rising real estate values, taxes, and insurance costs, along with the advent of home video, cable television and the multiplex, drive-ins had fared badly in the 1980s and 1990s. It seemed they might go the way of the poodle skirt.

“I think it’s that culturally we’ve changed,” said Wright. “The family unit has changed, and we stopped doing things together. Our lives got overprogrammed.”

As of July 2007, 383 remained in 47 states, with theaters in Pennsylvania, Ohio and New York accounting for more than a quarter of the total, according to the owner association.

In recent years, the numbers have stabilized, with about as many theaters opening as closing each year. Their relative novelty helps attract visitors from across state lines.

Some have been replaced by Wal-Mart or Home Depot; in other places, decaying screens and overgrown grass remain as eerie relics to the drive-in’s heyday.

And sometimes they are rescued: about 100 theaters have been revitalized or newly built since the 1990s. New Jersey’s only drive-in today was reopened in 2004, when the new landowner couldn’t bear to demolish the long-blank screen.

Theater owners admit that the modern drive-in is a low-profit labor of love. The business typically involves maintaining several acres just to open for one showing a night and for a few months out of the year. A ticket, which usually costs less than it does at an indoor theater, normally buys entrance to a double feature.

Gone are low-budget and second-run movies--today’s drive-ins are modern affairs that are more likely to feature the latest Disney release. Buying these films is their biggest cost.

“Back in the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s, you could play a movie that was three, four years old. People still hadn’t seen it,” said Paul Geissinger, owner of Shankweiler’s Drive-In Theatre in Orefield, Pa., the nation’s second and longest running drive-in (the Camden theater lasted only a few years).

Despite the costs, a passion for these icons keeps them going. Kopp and his wife purchased his North Carolina drive-in on eBay, and since 2004, they’ve sunk their retirement savings and an inheritance into the venture. “We’ve done everything a financial counselor would shoot us for,” he said.

Other new drive-ins have been built from scratch. “We started from 15 acres of woods and carved a drive-in out of rock,” said Barry Floyd, who, after epic battles with zoning boards, opened his five years ago, 40-miles from Nashville, Tenn. “There’s nothing nostalgic about my drive-in,” he said proudly.

Whether the traditional drive-in will survive to see the century mark remains in question. In the past, they’ve weathered and even thrived on technological change, improving their sound with the switch from car speakers to AM and then FM stereo for their audio.

But the coming decade will require the expensive switch to digital film.

“You have to think, is this an expense I want to go through?” said Geissinger. “If you are going to sit back and stay the way things used to be, you might as well pack your bags and forget about it,” he said.

Wright initiated a new generation when she took her 13-year-old niece on one of her road trips. “She saw Transformers and thought it was the best movie she ever saw,” said Wright. “I told her, that’s just because you saw it at the drive-in.”

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A list of all of the drive-ins around the country is also available at http://jscms.jrn.columbia.edu/cns/2008-04-01/leber-driveinsidebar

E-mail: jel137@columbia.edu