Rediscovering Drive-Ins with the Vogel Collection

The following is a guest post by Gillian Mahoney, Technical Services Technician in the Prints & Photographs Division.

Are drive-in theaters making a comeback? Because of the current pandemic, many are seeking socially distant yet still sociable activities, and drive-in movie theaters offer a perfect combination. In the 1950s and 60s drive-ins were wildly popular, numbering over 4,000 across the U.S., with marquees such as these (sometimes modified to introduce new pop culture references over the years) dotting the landscape:

<em>Creative marquee for the Finger Lakes Drive-In move theater in Auburn, New York The theater has (as of 2018) been open since 1947.</em> Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, 2018. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/highsm.52077

Creative marquee for the Finger Lakes Drive-In move theater in Auburn, New York The theater has (as of 2018) been open since 1947. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, 2018. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/highsm.52077

<em>Airline Drive-In, Houston, Texas.</em> Photo by John Margolies, 1977. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/mrg.06124

Airline Drive-In, Houston, Texas. Photo by John Margolies, 1977. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/mrg.06124

Though the popularity of drive-in theaters declined in recent decades, today many are turning again to these old staples. In the past year, presidential candidate Joe Biden hosted a town hall at a drive-in in Scranton, PA, pop-up theaters from California to Texas invited movie-lovers to safely watch new and old favorites, and even abroad, the Queen of England opened up her family’s country estate Sandringham to the public for a series of drive-in movies.

Lifestyle changes and technological developments led to the decline and demolition of many of these theaters. If you’re interested in learning more about the design of drive-ins, the Prints and Photographs Divisions holds Jack K. Vogel’s drive-in theater drawing collection – whose family still operates the Bengies Drive-In Theatre in Baltimore, MD.

Bengies Drive-In Theatre, 3417 Eastern Ave., Middle River, Maryland. Attraction board. Elevation. Drawing by Jack K. Vogel, 1971. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.51795

Bengies Drive-In Theatre, 3417 Eastern Ave., Middle River, Maryland. Attraction board. Elevation. Drawing by Jack K. Vogel, 1971. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.51795

Bengies Drive-In Theatre, 3417 Eastern Ave., Middle River, Maryland. Site and surroundings. Plan. Drawing by Jack K. Vogel, 1978. //www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/ppmsca.51797/

Bengies Drive-In Theatre, 3417 Eastern Ave., Middle River, Maryland. Site and surroundings. Plan. Drawing by Jack K. Vogel, 1978. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.51797

This collection allows researchers to see the care that went into designing these spaces. Looking at these drawings, one gains a sense of how automobile and pedestrian traffic was directed, how cars were spaced, and how architects designed theaters with the particular landscape and locale in mind.

This collection represents one-tenth of drive-in theaters in the U.S. during the height of their popularity, including a theater from Pittsburgh, PA and even the first drive-in theater in South America, the “Cine-Auto” in Lima, Peru!

Colonial Drive-In Theatre in Pittsburgh, PA. Drawing by Jack K. Vogel, 1953. Photographed by P&P staff, 2020.

Colonial Drive-In Theatre in Pittsburgh, PA. Drawing by Jack K. Vogel, 1953. Photographed by P&P staff, 2020.

Cine-Auto Theatre, Lima, Peru. Drawing by Jack K. Vogel, 1952. Photographed by P&P staff, 2020.

Cine-Auto Theatre, Lima, Peru. Drawing by Jack K. Vogel, 1952. Photographed by P&P staff, 2020.

As drive-in theaters are seeing increased patronage in 2020, consider researching how they were designed with the Jack K. Vogel collection and be sure to check out images of drive-in theaters across the U.S. in the Carol M. Highsmith archive and in the John Margolies Roadside America photograph archive.

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