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November 22, 2011 > History: Drive-ins

History: Drive-ins

One of the many changes that the automobile brought to American culture was in the area of entertainment. Not only did cars transport people to entertainment venues, entrepreneurs soon found that with the coming of large cars in the '50s, families enjoyed eating and watching movies together in those cars. At the popular drive-in restaurant, when cars pulled up to the building, car-hops on roller skates responded. They handed out menus, placed snap-on trays at the open car window, and quickly returned with juicy cheeseburgers and luscious milkshakes.

While a number of these restaurants flourished near-by, the drive-in theater had greater impact in Washington Township. The township boasted of three - all much more sophisticated than the first which was opened in Camden, New Jersey by Richard Hollingshead. He experimented by mounting a 1928 Kodak projector on the hood of his car, securing a screen to trees in his backyard and placing a radio behind the screen for sound.

Hollingshead received a patent in 1933 and promptly opened his theater with a 40x50 foot screen and slots for 400 cars. The charge was 25 cents per car and 25 cents per person. He advertised, "Everyone is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are." The first movie shown was "Wives Beware" starring Adolphe Menjou. Drive-ins caught on and soon spread to other states. The first in California was the Pico opened in Los Angeles in 1934 followed by the San Val in Burbank in 1938.

The drive-in theater came to Washington Township thanks to Enea Brothers Enterprises who owned a chain of outdoor theaters. Their Fremont Auto Movie opened in 1959 on north Fremont Boulevard. It had one screen and room for 770 cars. Their second theater, Nimitz Auto Movie, opened soon after on south Fremont Boulevard near the drag strip and sky sailing airport. It had two screens and parking for 440 cars. The last to open, and the largest - boasting six screens - was Union City 6 Drive-in. Located on Alvarado-Niles Road, it opened in 1966.

Drive-ins offered something for everyone. Young parents could put their pajama-clad children in the car along with favorite snacks. If the children got sleepy, everyone could continue to enjoy the movie in his own way. For older children who preferred playing to watching the movie, there were playgrounds with a variety of equipment. Some had petting zoos or pony rides. The snack bar was a favorite destination. Goodies available ranged from the usual popcorn and candy to ice cream and pizza. As the children became teen-agers, they went to the drive-in with friends. It was a first-date choice for many, and there have been reports of marriage proposals. The atmosphere was very social. At intermission patrons searched out friends and visited in the outdoor setting.

Shows started after sunset - usually between 7 and 9 P.M. depending on the time of year. Summertime meant getting home fairly late at night. People went early to get a good space - not too close or too far from the screen. It was not uncommon to hear car horns blown by impatient patrons, anxious for the movie to start.

There were some drawbacks. Rain could present a problem, but it was accepted, windshield wipers turned on and the fun continued. The quality of some speakers was poor, sometimes because drivers forgot to return them to their bases and drove off with them still attached to the car! Too, the temptation to sneak in sometimes overtook teen-agers who hid in car trunks, only to be discovered when drivers were asked to open their trunks as they drove through the entrance.

By 1958, the number of drive-ins in the United States stood at over 5,000. Then a number of factors led to a slow decline. Television offerings greatly improved and the VCR was introduced. Revenue had always been limited because they operated only after dark, and daylight savings further reduced that time. In Washington Township as well as in other areas, property values greatly increased, as did operating expenses. Many owners were able to finance their retirements by selling to developers.

John Enea was quoted in 1971 stating that land adjoining his Nimitz Auto Movie would become a commercial area within two or three years. In time, commercial development came that finally culminated in the huge Pacific Commons which now occupies the property. When Fremont Auto Movie closed, the area became home to the Charter Square Shopping Center, a Motel 6 and some housing.

The last to close was Union City in 1998. It was owned by Syufy Enterprises, the parent company of Century Theaters. When the surrounding area became Union Landing Shopping Center, Syufy Enterprises opened the Century Theater where the drive-in had stood. A landmark for 32 years, the drive-in went out in style. Shortly before demolition, it held a farewell gala called "The Last Picture Show." It mimicked the heyday of drive-in movies with '50s cars, music, and movies.

In the '90s, the number of drive-ins dropped to a low of about 750 nationwide. In the past few years, however, baby boomers' nostalgia for the icon of their youth, have created a resurgence of the drive-in. While none have been added on the West Coast, there is interest in Texas, the Midwest and South. For those baby boomers who want to re-live some of their old memories, the closest to us is the Capitol Drive-in in San Jose which can accommodate 600 cars at its six screens.

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