Return of the drive-in due to corona: safe in your own seat

The drive-in cinema got going synchronously with great upheavals at the end of the 1940s. Private mobilization was coming out of its trough, the old Hollywood formulas were less and less effective, certainly not for returning soldiers. Instead of confirming the fiction of an educated, white audience, teenagers and millions of households were now consuming and living differently. Heroic half-castes as well as nuclear families in the suburbs did not yet know what they were doing, as they marveled at the isolation amidst the uniformed suburban hell full of like-minded people in their own four walls plus garden at the barbecue. War won, existence secured, but no exit far and wide. Here, the promises of the pre-war idea took hold: "Guests can enter the theater in their automobiles and attend the performances without leaving the car. Thanks to the inclined platforms, even those in the rear of the car can follow the events on the screen," reported ADAC Motorwelt as early as 1933 (the ban on reporting on developments in other nations came later, as did fracture writing).

In the drive-in the sound comes from the car radio. The Federal Network Agency must allow drive-in cinemas to broadcast the soundtrack over a VHF frequency. According to the agency, applications for the allocation of broadcasting frequencies are booming like never before. Since the beginning of March, 43 frequencies have been allocated, and another nearly 80 applications are still being processed, it said.

The conditions for the cinemas are strict: no more than two moviegoers per car are allowed – unless it is a family or a household. The car may only be left to go to the toilet or in an emergency. There will be no traditional beverage or food service.

Matthias Penzel: "Objects in the rearview mirror are often closer than you think: The car biography." orange-press, 2011.

Full service all the way to the door

The clou of the new cinemas was entirely along the lines of the "Gesamtkunstwerk of effects" in Berlin movie theaters of the 1920s, as Siegfried Kracauer circled them in "Kult der Zerstreuung." The head of the family didn’t have to change after work for the suburban residences, the money for babysitters was handed in at the box office, and the kids frolicked on playgrounds, in pools, or rode on real ponies (better than carousels!). In addition, full control up to the door, window down, speakers hooked on, later radio on a separate FM frequency, even later with Dolby, soon certainly Bluetooth. And all that in the middle of nature, "fully motorized romance" (Spiegel, 1954). In the rolling automobile – my car is my castle – you could eat, smoke, talk, breastfeed, eat some more, put your feet on the dashboard… and nod off without the whispering in the next row upsetting the snoring.

No isolation is as safe and at the same time location-independent as the car

For the variant in the FRG – populated in 1960 with considerably fewer motor vehicles – the concept was adapted. In addition, two-wheelers, even non-motorized, were to get their money’s worth, pedestrians at half the price of a car – for 1 DM. Original but cinema with popcorn and chips, unusual also the "smoking allowed" signs. Ketchup in addition or mayo?

Virtually every movie mogul in Hollywood resented the boom away from the studio-controlled system. Their distributors did not give new productions to drive-in operators. The vaudeville family circus with double features of hackneyed hams was systematically discredited, as early as 1947 with a plot like something out of a movie theater, conceived in the second-to-last row: These were not movie theaters at all, but licensed petting places, Variety etched. The industry journal followed up two years later: "Negroes flock to the open air theaters." This could indeed be observed, even in the Southern states where segregation in public places was still strictly enforced. Fathers of families with or without overalls, women and children traveled unchecked, as in "Grease," to the passion pits not for the movie or for petting, but to have the laundry done, which was separate for the car…. and then to stand in line at the snack bar with so-called colored people. Horror, oh horror.

It was clear that the revolution will not be televised. However, as recently documented by Prof. Gretchen Sorin, the liberation of African Americans did not take place in omnibuses, but with individual transportation. "The automobile shaped the idea of a democratic humanity," Sorin’s book, Driving While Black, states. "It became the symbol of American freedom."

Place of emancipation

Also for minorities in our latitudes, persistent: better than a Renoir or an armchair by Starck at home, a car in front of the door demonstrates social advancement, taste, aesthetics (relatively, clearly). The idiosyncrasy of overcoming self-determined place and time went hand in hand with emancipation. In the 1920s for those who could afford it, later even for apprentices who were free to decide when to leave a rendezvous or conventions in the parental home behind. Without regard for schedules and lines.

Great cinema or revolution: What if the women suddenly had their own heads, the blacks no longer stayed on the farm, if some like the others perhaps still went to vote, studied, so mobilized and as if on speed invaded male domains? Again, a paradox is built in by default: One feels safe in the autonomous movement, the children shielded from public hostility or grabbers, at least temporarily, in traffic that can cost lives here, but which is not as controllable as the manufacturers would have you believe. And then at a price that you do not see.

Credits: The boom in drive-in movie theaters forced film distributors to rethink their approach. In addition, there was a lot going on not only socially and on highways, television was creeping into living rooms, exploitation films were pushing into movie theaters that were courting customers more aggressively. Those who were young and wanted to fiddle went to the movies. If you had a car, on the other hand, the drive-in rules for demure behavior didn’t suit you: "If a man," said a 1951 Memphis notice, "puts his arm around a girl, that’s all right. But if she puts her arm around him, too, and it comes to a hug – that’s not okay."

Would be too good to be true. There’s Hinz and Kunz sitting with like-minded people in a car in a movie theater, at the same time socially distanced from everyone, like on the balcony of a theater, totally private, the screen in front, with root beer, maybe a few stowaways smuggled in the trunk, and now they’re supposed to act like they’re in church? Every man for himself in a safe capsule, in the midst of thousands.

And then Tarantino

In Germany, even in the former American sector, the phenomenon of the suburbs always remained marginal. In the U.S., the attraction was already rolling out when the FRG’s first drive-in movie theater opened near Frankfurt. Home video, television, then also in color, wired, gave many drive-in theaters their final push.

Life and consumption continued to change, people visited the same places, the parking lots were similar, but the screen was replaced by a shopping mall. With multiplex, smaller, the chairs of a thousand previous visitors sat in. Already at the end of the sixties the drive was gone, in Tarantino’s last flick it can be seen when Brad Pitt curves to his place, past the back of a screen in the wasteland, in front of which only isolated people park.

At the "first" drive-in theater, the one at the gates of Philadelphia, the lights were switched off long beforehand. Its inventor sold after three years. When naming drive-in cinemas, people stuck to his formula.

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