“Saturday night at the movies
Who cares what picture you see
When you’re huggin’ with your baby
In the last row of the balcony?”
- The Drifters, 1964
I’ve driven by it for years. And for all those years, I have thought to myself that I had better make plans to go to the Wellfleet Drive-In soon. We all know that Cape Cod is changing and the Wellfleet Drive-In is one of very few Drive-In Theaters still operating. The Drive-In Theater was first developed in 1921 in Comanche, Texas. Cars parked side-by-side to watch silent movies. It wasn’t until “talkies” became popular that the Drive-In movement took off. Richard Hollingshead, Jr., whose family owned a chemical plant in Camden, N.J., developed the design of a modern Drive-In. He experimented with the screen, the sound and the placement of cars to ensure a good view of the screen. He was granted a U.S. Patent in 1933. His theater, in Pennsauken, N.J. was the first modern drive-in.
The concept caught on, and soon a few drive-ins were being built around the country. Noise was an issue, in that the sound was from large speakers on towers beside the screen. In some cases, there was a sound delay which irritated the viewers. RCA developed the in-car speakers with volume control in 1945.
Despite improvements, there were only 15 drive-ins in the country in 1940. The boom came after the end of World War II, and by 1955, there were about 4,000 drive-ins spread across the US. Since the show could not start until dark and cars were often too cold in the winter months, revenue was always an issue. But families with small children could go to a drive-in without a babysitter. I remember going to see “Midnight Cowboy” at a drive-in when my son, now 52, was an infant. And couples that wanted a little privacy could enjoy time together and alone from parents at a drive-in. Cars with bench seats were a big part of that privacy and today’s bucket seats are an inconvenience.
Show business being show business, all kinds of promotions were used to increase attendance. Drawings for prizes were common as well as appearances by actors and musical groups before the show. My favorite promotion was the $3 a car offer. As teenagers, we would pack as many kids as possible and head for the drive-in. My memory tells me that we were sometimes able to cram 10 kids into a DeSoto sedan owned by one of my buddies. Of course, we weren’t outsmarting the drive-in operators, because all they wanted was as many people as possible visiting the snack bar.
In 1957, Charles Zehnder and Don Jentz opened the Wellfleet Drive-In. Their first movie was “Desk Set” with Katherine Hepburn. Other movies that have enjoyed long runs include “Jaws,” “Star Wars,” and “E.T.” The Zehnder family continues to own the theater today.
The movies usually were forgettable, but the drive-in was certainly fun. Maybe there were more, but I can remember five drive-ins on Cape Cod and I know I went to at least three of them. Wellfleet, of course, and Dennis and Yarmouth, but I can’t remember ever going to the Hyannis Drive-In or the Cod Drive-in in Falmouth. I do remember that the Hyannis Drive-In was the site of religious services on Sunday mornings in its final years. Flea Markets at drive-ins have been prevalent all over the country. The Fort Lauderdale Florida Swap Shop is the world’s largest flea market. The Wellfleet Drive-In has offered flea markets since 1974. It opened a mini-golf course way back in 1961 and families arrive early to play mini-golf and visit the snack bar. Screens and projection have been improved and improved sound is now available on your car radio.
I don’t know just how many drive-ins still operate in the United States today. In 2014, there was a survey conducted and the count was 348, quite a decline from approximately 4,000 in 1955. The changing tastes in entertainment account for some of that decline. Television and the on-demand availability of movies hurt as does the value of land today. Many drive-in theaters have closed to make way for industrial and residential development.
I do know that there are presently 18 operating in New England. Massachusetts had three, as does Connecticut, New Hampshire and Vermont. There are five in Maine and one lone screen in all of Rhode Island.
And the drive-in continues as a source of family fun. I decided to to take three of my grandsons to the Wellfleet Drive-In in preparation for this article. The boys, Charlie, Brodie and their cousin, Teddy, were excited to go, but really had very little idea as to what to expect. Their mothers prepared them with pillows and blankets and off we went in our SUV. Since it was July, the movie didn’t start until 8:30 p.m. and we arrived at 7:45. It takes a few minutes to position your car backwards on the small ramp. The boys arranged their pillows and blankets so they could sit back against the rear of the front seat and watch the movie out the back with the rear door up. Much as I tried to prolong the procedure, we still had over a half hour until showtime.
A visit to the snack bar was next. Although the boys had eaten dinner at home, they chose all kinds of snacks including a giant bucket of popcorn. I had not eaten so I bought a cheeseburger which happened to be quite good. So with drinks and snacks, we returned to the car. By now the drive-in was filling with cars and trucks and so many children. Pickup trucks have specific parking spots arranged so they do not block the vehicle behind them. The trucks also park backwards and beach chairs are set up in the body of the truck providing a great view of the movie. It appeared to me that taking your kids to the drive-in was a regular occurrence for many of the families since they came prepared with frisbees and skateboards for their kids while waiting for 8:30 p.m.
The movie was “The Lion King,” Disney’s new adaptation of its classic story. The animation was spectacular and the story is told with significant skill. The boys, of course, knew the whole story, but they loved it anyway. I suggested listening on the FM radio, but the boys wanted the in-car speaker. We had some rain during the movie which didn’t really bother us much, but certainly affected the families sitting it their beach chairs in trucks. Wellfleet Drive-in offered a double feature, but most viewers went home after “The Lion King.”
It was pure nostalgia for me and discovery for the boys. Overall, a wonderful way to spend a summer evening. I encourage all of you to go back to the drive-in. We will return again and, of course, I have younger grandchildren coming along. I have long believed there is never too much of a good thing.