Does anyone have memories about drive-in theater patrons? (I need ushers' comments, too)

posted by anaside on March 21, 2008 at 9:50 am

Hi. I’m a graduate student at New York University. I’m planning to write a final report about who could and couldn’t go to drive-in theaters in 1930s through 1950s. If you have memories about drive-in theaters in that period, I need you to think about these questions: Were there African-American families? Were there women drivers? Were there immigrants? Were there single mom(dad) families?

And especially, if you were ushers at drive-in theaters at that time, can you tell me how much you earned and whether you had an experience to see drive-in films with your family or not.

When you write a comment(or email), please tell me your age and the time of your memory came from.Thanks for reading it. I would really appreciate your help.

Comments (15)

rsalters (Ron Salters)
rsalters (Ron Salters) on March 21, 2008 at 1:22 pm

anaside- I attended movies at drive-ins a very few times circa late-1940s, early & mid-1950s when I was a teen in the inner suburban area just south and south-east of Boston MA. There were many women who drove in that era although offhand I can’t recall if I ever saw one at the drive-in. The area was nearly 100% white, with just a handful of Asians. If a black family drove up to the ticket booth I can’t imagine that they would have been refused admission. We didn’t have “single moms” in those days (that’s a contempo phrase). There were young widows with kids, and widowers too. Maybe a few divorcees. It seems likely that a drive-in movie would have been suitable entertainment for them. We had immigrants, mostly from Europe and not very many. I don’t think that any of the “special-interest groups” that you mention would have had any reason to hesitate to go to the drive-ins that I attended in that time period.

anaside on March 22, 2008 at 8:05 pm

Thank you so much. And thanks for your correction! I didn’t know that a “single mom” is a contempo word.:)

rsalters (Ron Salters)
rsalters (Ron Salters) on March 24, 2008 at 10:28 am

The reason there were few “Single Moms” in the time period you reference, anaside, is because it was considered scandalous and disgraceful if a young, unmarried girl got pregnant. She wasn’t supposed to be Single and a Mom!! That thinking changed because of the social upheavals of the 1960s. However, I do think that she and her kid(s) would have been able to attend a drive-in with no problems in my area at the time (eastern-MA).

TheatreOrgan on March 25, 2008 at 11:10 am

I attended the Drive-in Theaters of Nashville TN in the 1950s when I was a child (born 1951). My Grandparents would take me for entertainment when I visited them on the weekends. The majority of the cars contained parents/grandparents with children, and on the back rows, naturally, the dating teen couples. I can’t recall any single moms with their children, nor ever seeing Afro-Americans. I can’t recall any immigrants being patrons either, as the mid-south was not a destination, at that time, for immigrants. During the 50s, I do not recall ever seeing an usher for the drive-in. You merely drove your auto into the line at the box office, picked up a car heater if it was cold, and drove to the parking space you chose. Parking spaces around the concession stand were the most popular. There was generally playground equipment near the large screen for the children for the time period before the movie began and at intermission. There were also twin screens at some theatres. Your parking space included a hard-wired speaker on a post, or in later days, you could tune your car radio to a particular channel and receive the signal. Most times, there was always a double feature. In the summer, patrons would bring their folding lawn chairs and sit outside of their vehicle. The Drive-Ins reduced the number of patrons that would attend the downtown movie theatres because you could be more comfortable in your clothing at the Drive-Ins. Some of the Nashville area Drive-Ins were the: Skyway, Colonial, Montague, and Bordeaux. Today, only two Drive-Ins remain in the Greater Middle Tennessee area. One is in Dickson, and one is in Franklin, KY. The Franklin, KY drive in charges $9.00 per carload and always has two First Run pictures each weekend from March til October. This theatre is always at full capacity during these months.

anaside on March 26, 2008 at 9:47 am

Thanks, Ron and TheatreOrgan! But weren’t there ushers who directed traffic at drive-in theaters? And I heard that there were staff members who patrolled parking lots til midnight to supervise “young bloods looking for a place to make two-bit love.” And I think I read from a book that said flat tires were fixed, a car was washwed, car windshields were cleaned at ozoners. Then should I call those people who did the services “staff”? Were they different from ushers? (Gosh, I’m so confused!)

And Ron, I have a question for you. If it’s true that young widows with kids were in drive-ins, do you mean they drove by themselves? I thought there were much more male drivers than female counterparts in 1930s and even in 1950s. Is it just my prejudice? Actually, I couldn’t find official sources that compared the number of women and men drivers from 1930s to 1950s, so I’m not sure. If you can recall whether there were more men drivers than women or not, please tell me.

Thanks again for comments and sharing your memories!

TheatreOrgan on March 26, 2008 at 11:09 am

The nearest thing to an usher in the Nashville TN area would have been an attendant that stood at the exit gate of the property in order to assist with the directing of the exiting patrons. While the entrance to the Drive-In was usually on a main thoroughfare, the exit from the Drive-in was sometimes to a side street. The attendant would stop traffic on the side street and use his flashlight to signal the exiting patrons to drive forward, turning either left or right onto the street.

I never saw anyone who cleaned windshields, washed cars, or repaired flats or stalled engines. The employees of the Drive-Ins collected your money at the Box Office, served you in the concession stand, operated the projector, and assisted you with traffic direction at the conclusion of the film(s).

rsalters (Ron Salters)
rsalters (Ron Salters) on March 26, 2008 at 12:44 pm

I can’t say that I recall any staff members directing cars at the drive-in, or performing service on the cars. That’s not to say that it didn’t take place somewhere at some drive-ins. My memory is that we drove up to the ticket booth, near the street, and then found a parking spot ourselves. In the early drive-ins (1930s), there were 2 kinds of spots- “drive in” and “drive over”. When leaving a “drive in” spot, you had to back your car out. When leaving a “drive over” spot, you drove forward. The latter was the standard. Near the rear of the property was located the projection booth, which usually also had a refreshment stand, plus restrooms. As for women drivers, I would say in the 1950s there were more men than women who drove, but it was by no means rare for a woman to drive. The mothers of 2 of my girlfriends in the mid-1950s not only had drivers licenses, but one of them also drove a motor scooter, and both of them had airplane pilot’s licenses ! Offhand, I can’t now recall seeing a woman drving a car at the drive-in, but they undoubtedly were there. I knew someone who managed 2 drive-ins in the south and west suburbs of Washington DC in the late-1940s and early-1950s (now deceased) who told me that at one of these venues local black families who lived nearby would come on foot and sit at the rear of the property and when he noticed this he arranged to set up a speaker back there for them. He felt it was good “public relations” since they were his neighbors. He actually lived on site in a tiny apartment built into the base of the screen.

anaside on March 26, 2008 at 10:48 pm

I’m so amazed by your help.Thank you so much!
Reading comments from both of you and books about drive-in movie theaters, I think services which staff members did at ozoners were different depend on times and regions.

And Ron,I was surprised at the women you mentioned about — airplane pilot’s licenses and a motor scooter??? Wow! They might not be able to represent women in 1950s, but I could confirmed that there “existed female drivers.” Also,thanks for your recall of the black families. It helped me to think not only race but also the role of a drive-in as a place for public amusement.

Both of your comments are so precious, since they can’t be obtained from “official” sources, such as journals, newspapers, etc. I’m so lucky that I met people like you (although we met on online).

rsalters (Ron Salters)
rsalters (Ron Salters) on March 27, 2008 at 1:13 pm

Perhaps the 2 women mentioned above were not typical of the drive-in era. One was a professional photographer who was married to a college professor and had the cutest daughter. She lived near an airfield as a girl so that’s how she developed an interest in aviation. The other gal, with the motor scooter, was a speech therapist working on her doctorate who had 8 kids! I don’t know where she learned to fly. The mother of a good friend of mine also drove and took her 2 boys everwhere, including to movie theatres and possibly to drive-ins as well. She was a teacher. When my friend turned 16 he got a drivers license and an old car. In the 1950s, one could drive at age 16 in MA and at age 14 in GA (I think). Another Drive-in memory- some of the venues charged admission per carload, but others charged for each person in the car. This led to kids hiding in the trunks of cars and under blankets on the floor of the back seat! Of course, I never engaged in such skullduggery! In my class in driving school when I was 17 or so, there were 7 or 8 boys but only one girl. So I would say that the girls of that era were a little slower to take driving lessons than the boys.

rsalters (Ron Salters)
rsalters (Ron Salters) on March 27, 2008 at 1:25 pm

anaside- I notice above that you use the term “Ozoner” for Drive-in. This is an old expression used in the “Variety” theatrical trade paper back in the 1950s and probably earlier. Another name was “Passion Pit” because of all the “making out” which took place in cars parked to the rear of the theatre. Being a fan of theater buildings I actually preferred to attend movies inside rather than at drive-ins.

newt on June 1, 2008 at 5:38 am

At one time, there were three drive-ins in my hometown of Hamilton, Ohio. The Acme, the Ramona and the Holiday. Now only the Holiday exists. It is the oldest one in this area and runs films years around. My family didn’t go to the drive-in since we did not have a car for the longest time, but when I started driving, I went a few times. Usually the movies started at dusk. There were often playgrounds where the kids could ride on swings, teeter totters, etc. Some folks bought their lawn chairs and sat out next to the speaker. I knew one girl who popped her own popcorn to save money. Usually by the second feature, the smaller kids (who were already in their p.j.s) were sleeping on blankets in the back where the seats folded down. Obviously this was for station wagons. Mike Newton

MPol on August 11, 2008 at 9:19 pm

I recall going to the Fresh Pond Drive-In, in Cambridge, MA, back in the late 1950’s, when I was a preteen. My parents would pile everybody into our lime-green Rambler station wagon, and then we’d go out to dinner first, and then to a drive-in movie. I admittedly don' t recall noticing whether or not there were African-Americans, immigrants, etc, or people who helped service cars there, but it was kind of a neat experience. We’d go into a little booth, get served burgers and French Fries, and a little gray speaker would be attached to our car. My dad was always the one who drove, although all four of us, including my mom and my younger sister (my brother hadn’t come along yet ), were along for the ride.

Mike Rogers
Mike Rogers on June 28, 2010 at 5:45 pm

Grossest job at a Drive-in picking up used condoms,Usually on the back rows.I did for a summer along with the other thrash at Forest City,N.C. drive-in, the Tri-City Drive-in {on CT}.

TLSLOEWS on June 28, 2010 at 7:07 pm

Thanks for that story Mike.

Mike Rogers
Mike Rogers on June 29, 2010 at 6:03 pm

You never worked in a drive-in?

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