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:
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.
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!
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.
- Dive into some great images of drive-in theaters available in the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog.
- Take a look at the Historic American Buildings Survey for the Mahnomen City Drive-In Movie Theater in Mahnomen, MN.
- Check out a previous post on the John Margolies Roadside America photograph archive.
- Explore the Carol M. Highsmith archive.