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Drive-In Theaters Appealed to all Ages
Article first published in Vol. 14, 1996.
By Rebecca Paniagua, Monica Najera, Rosemary Hoy and Gabriel Acuña
From 1954 to 1963, the state of Texas had over 300 drive-ins. During these years many El Pasoans enjoyed going to their local drive-in theater to meet friends, spend time with family or to be alone with a lover.
Drawing by Tony Barron
Although the number of drive-in movies in the U.S. peaked in the 1950s, they had their beginning in the late 1930s. During the early years of the Great Depression, many people visited movie houses to forget their sorrows in the glitter and fantasy that motion pictures provided. Though economic times were hard, they were not hard enough to keep the movie viewing audience away. Historian James Henetta says most Americans saw at least one movie a week, with attendance ranging from 60 to 75 million.
In his book Drive-In Theaters: From Their Inception in 1933, Kerry Segrave credits Richard Hollingshead, Jr., for inventing the first drive-in. Hollingshead set up a movie screen in front of his garage, aimed a 16 millimeter projector at it and became the first person ever to watch a movie from an automobile. After many weeks of exploring his idea, he discovered a snag in his plan. Hollingshead noticed that if one vehicle was parked in back of another, the automobile in front would obstruct the view for the car in the rear. This led to the utilization of ramps for a clear view of the screen. Hollingshead made his idea a reality, opening the first drive-in theater in 1933 in Camden, New Jersey.
At first, the theater's only audio system consisted of a large loud speaker on top of the movie screen, often prompting protests form nearby residents. Segrave tells us that after World War II, RCA developed the individual speakers which hung inside the patron's car. Sound sometimes still was not the best, however.
Segrave says the number of drive-ins in the nation grew rapidly after World War II, with 820 in 1948 and a whopping 3,775 by 1954. Just four years later in 1958, the expansion reached its peak of 4,063 theaters.
Locally, the El Paso Drive-in opened at Chelsea and Montana in 1946, the first of many such theaters to be built in town. The success of this theater sparked the opening of the Del Norte a year later in the Northeast. The Fiesta on the West Side and the Bronco in the Lower Valley opened in 1950.
In 1951, the first double-screen to open was the Bordertown on Montana in the city's East Side. Tom Hoy, long-time El Paso resident, remembers going to the Bordertown during the '50s: "My friends and I would cruise the snack bar in my '56 Chevy. We thought we were sooo cool, smoking cigarettes and sharing a quart of beer between the four of us. We didn't cruise for girls, though. We were scared to talk to them; times were different then."
By 1958, El Paso had added the Ascarate, North Loop and Trail outdoor theaters. The largest drive-in to open in El Paso was the Rocket on Dyer in 1966. Cinema Park 3, the first triple screen drive-in, opened in 1969.
Recently, Angela Pratt, who came to El Paso in 1963, fondly reminisced about going to the Ascarate drive-in as a child with her teenage cousins. "We'd go on the weekends to catch the latest movies. I saw "Dracula" for the first time in color and we'd also watch Cantinflas movies and rancheras which were like Mexican westerns."
Pratt was usually sent to the drive-in by her aunt to keep an eye on the older girls and their boyfriends to make sure they didn't neck. But periodically they would send her to the snack bar so they could have some privacy.
"Cruising the snack bar was always an adventure," says Pratt. "I'd meet up with my friends and we'd check out all the cute boys. And on the way back to the car we'd peek through the steamy windows and try and catch a glimpse of what the older kids were doing. Good thing we never got caught," laughs Pratt.
Because teens often went to the drive-in to "make out," these outdoor theaters earned nicknames such as "passion pits" and "auto havens." Vangie Holt, a teenager at this time, remembers the days when her parents wouldn't let her go to a drive-in unsupervised because "they knew what went on over there."
Many teen-agers also made a game of sneaking into the drive-in, whether they had the price of a ticket of not. A car with one or two young people would enter the theater while another one or two of their friends remained in the trunk of the large cars popular in the '50s and'60s. When it became dark, the trunks flew open, teens crawled out and enjoyed the movie free.
Unknown to these youngsters, drive-in guards were familiar with this scheme and recorded license plates of cars with only one or two teens entering the grounds. If later the car contained more than the original number of patrons and they could not produce ticket stubs, the guards would often kick out the entire carload. But the challenge to sneak in always remained.
Teens were not the only audience, however. The drive-in not only allowed parents to bring their children with them, it usually provided a playground for those old enough to be able to run freely, thus eliminating the need for a baby sitter.
Most people relished the privacy that came from watching a movie in their own car, a practice which went hand-in hand with the public's love for automobiles. Viewers who wanted to smoke or chug a beer could do so. They could also bring a variety of refreshments form home, toss the trash out the window and let someone else clean up.
One Texas resident, Rosa Paniagua, recalls visiting the North Loop drive-in with her family during the 1960's. "I remember my dad packing all of us in the car. We'd go at least every other week to watch a Spanish film or one of those really weird science fiction movies. Those were my personal favorites." For Paniagua, like many El Pasoans, the drive-in became a major source of family entertainment.
Across the nation, drive-ins were becoming miniature amusement parks. Besides the requisite playgrounds, some complexes included restaurants, swimming pools, gift shops, banks, fishing ponds, and a variety of entertainment before the movie such as firework exhibits and live animal and aerial acts. And although drive-ins in northern states closed in the winter, those in the South and West often did not, for patrons could rent individual car heaters for chilly weather.
A 1963 Newsweek magazine article touted the Autoscope Drive-in located in Albuquerque which provided a total of 260 individual 3 feet by 5 feet screens for cars. The same article described the ultimate drive-in: the Vermont Theatre Motel faced a 100-foot movie screen and featured speakers in every room. For 75 cents a person could just take in a movie. For $16 and up, a couple could rent an air conditioned double room complete with bath and enjoy the movie in their room.
By 1973, most of the drive-ins could not compete with the onslaught of the multi-screen indoor theaters that were being built in shopping malls. Now the public could enjoy shopping at their favorite stores, going to the movies and not having to worry about the weather.
Older drive-ins needed costly capital improvements by now, and they were unable to compete with dollar theaters and the improved color television sets which were popping up in every room of the house, providing access to dozens of stations through cable. The birth of the videocassette recorder also allowed people the luxury to rent movies and view them in the comfort of their own home.
In 1973, the El Paso, Del Norte and Trail drive-ins closed, with the Bronco following in 1975. Three more followed, leaving only four in the city. The two Lower Valley cinemas -- the Ascarate and the North Loop -- shut down in 1988. Finally, the Cinema Park drive-in on the city's East Side closed in 1994. El Paso's only remaining drive-in is the Fiesta on Montana, showing adult movies exclusively.
Over the years since 1933, technology has changed the way we as a society view motion pictures. Inventions like cable and satellite television, VCRs, laser discs and THX in indoor theaters have all been created to make movie viewing more convenient. A few hundred drive-ins still exist in the countries are just now discovering this icon of American culture. The first drive-in theaters have recently opened in Japan!