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Drive Out to a Drive-In

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"Really?"



That's what I hear when I tell people there are a dozen drive-in movie theaters still operating in the greater Pittsburgh area.

Like poodle skirts, malt shops and chrome bumpers, drive-ins are a hallmark of mid-century Americana that folks assume just slipped away when we were busy being modern.

In an area that is so often defined by places that are gone and the "good old days," Pittsburghers are quicker to reminisce about long-gone theaters than to realize that right now our town is among the best in the nation for density of drive-ins. Why mourn for the Colonial, the Blue Dell or Super 71 when you could be enjoying a movie under the stars this very night?

I have no warm childhood memories of drive-ins. A product of a dense, concrete jungle, I was in my mid-20s and re-located east before I ever rolled into a drive-in movie theater. Even then, the concept that vast tracts of land could be set aside so that on a few nights a year, folks could watch movies from what amounted to a massive parking lot, seemed outlandish and even scandalous.

Then the film began ... a piece of garbage known as Beverly Hills Cop 2 ... and I was instantly entranced. Against the night sky, the screen seemed to loom larger than at any indoor theater, projecting Eddie Murphy's huge smirking head onto the stars. I munched my popcorn and sprawled out across the car hood, in harmony with all that once helped define the good life in America ... big automobiles, open land and an immutable entrepreneurial brazenness that says Drive In and See the Show Without Leaving Your Car.

Even with all the bells and whistles of home-theater technology and pumped-up megaplexes, there is nothing quite as absurdly pleasurable as a drive-in movie ... watching a movie outside, amid the trees and crickets.

The experience offers a looseness you don't get strapped into your indoor-theater seat. In the privacy of your car, you can eat and drink noisily, talk, smoke, check your text messages, tend a sniveling baby, make out ... all the things that are truly annoying to others when cloistered within four walls.

Here, before the feature you can toss a football, walk the dog, check out who's there. And, naturally, visit the concession stand, generally a cinderblock bunker with vestigial trappings of the old days: a painted glass sign that reads "Snack Bar"; a pink-tiled restroom; old newspaper ads in frames. Not only are prices cheaper, but most stands still serve something you could make a meal of ... hot dogs, hamburgers, sandwiches or pizzas ... as well as carnival-exotic items such as cotton candy, sno-kones, funnel cakes, glo-pops and toy doodads that blink.

On warm summer nights, it's de rigueur to take in the film truly outdoors ... perched on the hood, seated in folding chairs or lounging on blankets. "Even in the cold weather, we get 'em sitting out," marvels Rick Glaus, operator of the Dependable, in Corapolis. "Last November when we were playing Harry Potter, they were wrapped up in blankets." But, he adds, "Is it any different than going to the Steelers game or a high school game ... sitting in the cold for three hours, all bundled up?"

Sound, once pumped through speakers you attached to your car window, is supplied via FM radio. (Purists can still hook up a speaker at the Kane in Aliquippa and at some of the Dependable's slots.) Deadheaded white metal poles that once held speakers remain at many drive-ins as ghostly reminders of that earlier technology, but are useful in helping today's attendees park.

Drive-ins conjure wide flat spaces, but that's not necessarily the case around here. Nothing is more Pittsburgh than getting this instruction at the Dependable's gate: "Up the hill, down the hill, then make a left." The Riverside, in North Vandergrift, sits in its own tiny valley, the parking area framed by steep wooded hills. Other regional drive-ins cleverly incorporate the topography, locating screens atop hills for added height (as the Pioneer, in Butler, does) or, at the Kane, parking cars in rows on the sloping hill aimed at the screen below ... what amounts to stadium-seating for autos.







Not surprisingly, two of America's most beloved achievements ... cars and motion pictures ... came together early. The country's first drive-in opened in 1933 in Camden, N.J., and was quickly followed by imitators nationwide, including Pittsburgh's first, the South Park Drive-In, in Bethel Park, which opened in 1939.

The South Park, which once used curtains to block the screen from the roadway and eventually closed in 1985, was among the warmly remembered local venues in Rick Sebak's 1990 WQED-produced documentary, Things That Aren't Here Anymore, and its update, Stuff That's Gone. Sebak had grown up near the South Park Drive-In. "All the great movie-going experiences of my childhood were at the drive-in, either the South Park or the Fairground Drive-In," he recalls. In 1971, this fondness prompted the then-college freshman to research the South Park for a school project, sparking Sebak's interest in regional history and roadside attractions.

Besides the novelty of watching a film from your car, the drive-in's chief attraction was its casualness in a time when indoor theaters demanded proper attire and behavior: "Come Dressed as You Are," "Smoke, If You Like" ... even "Ideal for Shut-Ins."

The Golden Age of drive-ins began after World War II, as several factors encouraged both the construction of outdoor theaters and their hearty attendance. Middle-class families filled the burgeoning suburbs. Tracts of cheap land were converted to easily accessible retail and entertainment for car-happy families. What could be simpler than packing the kids into a huge car and catching a movie nearby? (At that time, the drive-in was often the suburb's only movie theater.) "No babysitter required," the ads crowed, as drive-ins strove to attract the whole family with well-stocked concession stands, playgrounds and other amusements.

By the late 1950s, there were more than 40 drive-ins in the greater Pittsburgh area, earning the city the nickname of "drive-in capital." There was even a drive-in in the heart of the East End, the Silver Lake, on Washington Boulevard near Frankstown Road, and another on the North Side. Allegheny County alone boasted 21 drive-ins.

Unique regional factors may have contributed to the area's unusual density of drive-ins, says Brian Butko, editor of the Heinz History Center's magazine, Western Pennsylvania History, and the author of several books about local roadside attractions. Butko theorizes that the region's other industry ... coal mining, which was more widely dispersed than the river-based steel mills ... helped spur the construction of so many drive-in theaters here.

"In the 1950s, at the same time that suburbanization is creeping outward," he explains, "the demand for coal is dropping because people are turning to heating oil or electricity" that left disused coal fields on the city's fringe. Coal-mining companies, with heavy equipment for earth-moving, could shift easily to the latest trend ... drive-in theaters. "They already had the cleared land, and for a modest investment, they could throw up a block building for the projector and a screen, and suddenly they're in business."

Drive-ins peaked in the late 1950s (there were more than 4,000 nationwide in 1958), and then began a slow decline. The baby boomers grew up; television offered private entertainment at home. Indoor theaters offered technological improvements in sound and wider screens, while the drive-in experience remained unchanged, if not worse: Some drive-ins, now a couple decades old, grew shabby under the elements. Through the 1960s, drive-ins became the province of teens (and their reputed bad behavior) and increasingly shlocky fare.

The 1970s brought worse body blows. Multiplex theaters opened in suburbs. Glaus, who has run the Dependable since 1968, recalls: "It used to be you went Downtown or to a drive-in [to see a movie]. When the multiplexes came in, they didn't just kill Downtown; they killed the drive-ins."

Rising insurance costs wiped out the playgrounds and the concession kitchens. America's enormous road-cruising dream machine was replaced by a cramped, fuel-efficient four-wheel appliance. Teens relocated to the mall. Some drive-ins, including the Dependable and the Brownsville, in Fayette County, opted for X-rated features, an association that tarnished the venues' earlier family-friendly reputation. By 1980, even the cheapie features and porn had moved off drive-in screens and onto videocassette and cable.

Grim statistics bear out the rapid decline: Between 1978 and 1988, more than 1,000 drive-ins went dark. Those that weren't torn down sat rotting, deteriorating hulks often in full view of a roadway ... another sign, it seemed to passersby, that drive-ins were dead.

Ironically, what had created the drive-in boom ... maximizing under-utilized land on the edge of cities ... proved to be its ultimate doom. As urban areas sprawled farther out, the acres of land on which drive-ins sat ... flat, virtually empty and often near major roads ... rose substantially in value and became ripe for sale and redevelopment. Says Butko, "When you're an island in a sea of suburbia, no matter how enthusiastic you are [about running a drive-in], you just feel the pressure of selling out."

Dozens of regional drive-ins have since been paved over, but the relatively recent fate of the Greater Pittburgh still smarts. In October 1997, the Greater Pitt, a five-screen drive-in that sat on a 50-acre site along Route 30 in North Versailles, closed, in spite of its popularity. An offer from a developer proved too attractive to a majority share of its owners. Today, a Wal-Mart Supercenter sits there, surrounded by plenty of available parking. In a further affront to the Greater Pitt's outdoor-movie enthusiasts, in November 1999, a 20-screen Loews multiplex was opened on the site's eastern corner.

But oh, fickle fate: That $20-million venue was shuttered less than two years later. Today, the semi-gutted theater is home to a weekend flea market ... not unlike some of its poorer drive-in brethren.







According to the United Drive-In Theater Owners Association, as of January 2006, there are 407 drive-ins nationwide offering 658 screens. (These numbers are always in flux, but 2005 stats from the National Association of Theater Owners correspond: They list 401 sites, representing 649 screens.) Today, Pennsylvania and Ohio tie for the top spot with 34 drive-ins each (we edge ahead slightly with 54 screens to Ohio's 52).

Gone are the fantastic edifices of yore that dripped neon, were bedecked with stories-high murals or dared to replicate a Wonder of the Ancient World. Today's drive-ins are survivors ... many are nearing six decades of service ... and most bear the signs of age. They are more modestly appointed, occasionally even hardscrabble ... and only a few venues have related attractions: Brownsville has a small putt-putt golf course, and the Palace Gardens, a single screen in Indiana, and the Kane, in Aliquippa, still have a collection of old metal playground equipment in front of their screens.

It's not likely there will be any shiny new drive-ins in our future. It takes a significant investment to open a new drive-in ... acquiring 10-20 acres of flat land near a major population center, securing permits, building the facility. Against such odds, more than 30 new drive-ins have been built nationally since the 1990s, though it's more common that a previously shuttered drive-in is re-opened, as 60 have over the same period. Locally, the Moonlite, 71 miles away in Brookville, re-opened in 1997 after a 10-year hiatus. The Galaxy in North Vandergrift lit up again in 1995, after being dark for 16 years.

Just last year, the Galaxy went dark briefly, but under new management was re-born in July as the Riverside. At 34, the Riverside's Todd Ament represents a new generation of operators, though he's hardly new to the biz: He's been employed at indoor theaters since the early '90s, and spent five years working at the Evergreen Drive-In, in Mount Pleasant. For Ament, running a drive-in is the fulfillment of a dream: "I fell in love with showing films ever since I worked the projector back in school," he says.







Drive-ins, it's safe to say, are past their glory days. Joe Warren, a scion of Pittsburgh-area drive-ins (at one point, his family owned seven local drive-ins) now operates just one, the Evergreen. At least, he says, "The drive-in business is steady right now."

Drive-ins, though, still face challenges. They continue to compete with multiplexes, which can offer multiple screenings throughout the day. Advertising is expensive, yet letting people know a drive-in is nearby and operational remains critical. "A lot of people don't think about drive-ins anymore," says Warren. "Drive-ins aren't the way they used to be ... in everybody's back yard. We're few and far between now, and you have to look for us."

When Ament re-launched the Galaxy as the Riverside last year, the changeover caused some confusion. "People think the Galaxy is gone," he says, "and don't know that the drive-in has re-opened. ... It's hard to advertise when you're on a budget. You rely on word of mouth, and the Internet."

Indeed, the Internet may be one aspect of modern technology that's helping drive-ins stay visible. Theaters can put up a Web site and send patrons e-mail blasts about upcoming features. Finding a drive-in anywhere, or learning about its history and current status, is a couple clicks away at comprehensive fan sites (such as drive-ins.com and driveinmovie.com) which also allow scattered fans to keep in touch and up to date.

Fans including Denny Pine, 36, of Mount Lebanon, patronize drive-ins as part of the battle against the corporate blanding of America. Pine is a bona fide drive-in enthusiast, one of the dedicated few who are actively involved in preserving drive-in history. He is a member of the Baltimore, Md.-based Drive-In Theatre Fan Club (now on hiatus), and he visits as many drive-ins as he can ... even hitting far-flung theaters on his vacations. Off the road, he pores over decades of newspaper microfilm at local libraries, with the goal of compiling a complete history of our region's drive-ins

"I live very nostalgically," Pine says. "I have not set foot in any of those multiplexes. I love seeing the movie screen out in the open, the rows of cars. Some drive-ins, like the Kane, are still very nostalgic-looking."

But for all the tears shed over lost drive-ins, recent developments may have helped slow the decline. Once, studios restricted drive-ins to booking lesser-quality B pictures and second-run releases, or offered prohibitively expensive terms for first-run features. However, since the mid-1990s, drive-ins have been able to book major releases on opening day, which helps draw crowds.

Drive-ins favor G- and PG-rated films (though venues with multiple screens often book R-rated films) and once again have become a preferred family destination. At the Dependable, Glaus says, "People take their kids for a walk in a stroller; you can't do that indoors." And it's easy to attract families with ticket prices nearly half that of indoor theaters ... plus a second feature.

Emma Ross, who helps operate the Riverside, believes the novelty of the old-fashioned drive-in experience can captivate today's kids, raised on TV and computers. "We often leave the projection-room door open during intermission," she explains, "so they can look in and see the film and the equipment."

The Riverside is also experimenting with new ways to bring patrons in. In April, the drive-in hosted a private party with screenings of classic horror flicks and live bands; Ross says they're considering booking bands before other films. Over the Labor Day weekend, the Riverside will partner with Oakmont's Oaks Theater to show the 1958 shlock horror pic The Blob.

Oaks manager Jared Earley notes that his theater's summer weekend program, Moonlit Matinees, is "an indoor presentation of drive-in worthy movies." In fact, that's why he's taking the last film of the series to an actual drive-in. "The Riverside is in such a great setting," he says: "the way the drive-in is tucked into the dark woods and surrounded by hills. That should add another layer of suspense when the Blob gets loose."

Mostly, drive-in business is seasonal, but Glaus, at the Dependable, is willing to bet movie-goers will come out year 'round. "People think the drive-in is like a pool ... that it opens Memorial Day and closes Labor Day," he says. "It never was that way before," when drive-ins stayed open through the cold months, even offering patrons in-car heaters. In the past, the Dependable was open March through November, but starting this fall, it will be open all year. "There's a drive-in near Detroit, Michigan, and their weather's got to be pretty comparable to ours, if not worse," he explains. "[It's] open seven nights a week, [and] seems to be doing well. So, we're going to try weekends anyway."





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Today, most of the area's drive-ins are just beyond the edge of Pittsburgh's sprawl [see map]. A wooden fence and some trees planted along the drive-in's perimeter barely conceal how the suburbs have caught up to this outer ring, the last remaining venues from our region's jam-packed cinematic past.

Back at the History Center, Butko, who regularly visits local drive-ins, sounds slightly wistful. "All these things we love, they don't always fit the modern business model. But I don't think the business model for drive-ins is bad: People love them, and go to them if they're available."

And after a half-century of booms, busts and shake-ups, drive-ins have proved resilient, defying frequent obituaries, drawing new generations of patrons and owners, and standing firm against successive waves of new-and-improved entertainment. In the end, going to a drive-in is a great experience ... an unlikely combo pack of film, nature and car ... that can't be replicated in any ersatz form.

"Hopefully drive-ins will be here for another 20, 30 years," says Glaus at the Dependable. "Who knows?"









The region's drive-ins form a nearly complete ring around Pittsburgh, much like one of the region's much-derided color belts.



NAME: Dependable Drive-In

ADDRESS: 500 Moon Clinton Rd., Corapolis

TELEPHONE: 412-264-7011

URL: www.dependabledrivein.com

TICKETS: $6; $2 (ages 6-11)

NUMBER OF SCREENS: 4

OPENED: 1950

DISTANCE FROM DOWNTOWN: 12 miles

NOTE: Some speakers for use at Screen 1.



NAME: Kane Family Drive-In

ADDRESS: 2971 Kane Rd., Aliquippa

TELEPHONE: 724-378-1970

URL: kanefamilydrivein.tripod.com

TICKETS: $6; $2.50 (ages 6-12)

NUMBER OF SCREENS: 1

OPENED: 1954

DISTANCE FROM DOWNTOWN: 21 miles

NOTE: Still has playground and old speakers.



NAME: Hi-Way Drive-In

ADDRESS: Route 30, Latrobe

TELEPHONE: 724-537-7418

URL: www.hiwaydriveinlatrobe.com

TICKETS $6; free for under 11

NUMBER OF SCREENS: 1

OPENED: Mid-1950s

DISTANCE FROM DOWNTOWN: 34 miles

NOTE: Ticket price includes trash bag.



NAME: Evergreen Drive-In

ADDRESS: Highway 819 N., Mount Pleasant

TELEPHONE: 724-547-2632

URL: www.evergreendrivein.com

TICKETS: $7; $3 (ages 6-11)

NUMBER OF SCREENS: 4

OPENED: 1947

DISTANCE FROM DOWNTOWN: 33 miles

NOTE: Drive-In Radio, a selection of oldies, plays before and between features.



NAME: Riverside Drive-In

ADDRESS: Route 66 North, North Vandergrift

TELEPHONE: 724-568-1250

URL: www.riversidedrivein.com

TICKETS: $6; $2 (under 11)

NUMBER OF SCREENS: 1; second planned

OPENED: Early 1950s

DISTANCE FROM DOWNTOWN: 27 miles

NOTE: Drive-in named for the Kiskiminetas River just across Rt. 66.



NAME: Winter Drive-In

ADDRESS: 400 Luray Dr., Wintersville, Ohio

TELEPHONE: 740-266-9020

URL: www.winterdrivein.com

TICKETS: $6; $2 (under 11)

NUMBER OF SCREENS: 4

OPENED: 1969

DISTANCE FROM DOWNTOWN: 39 miles



NAME: Brownsville Drive-In

ADDRESS: Highway 40, Brownsville

TELEPHONE: 724-785-7190

URL: www.tjent.com/bdi

TICKETS: $6; $2 (under 12)

NUMBER OF SCREENS: 3

OPENED: 1949

DISTANCE FROM DOWNTOWN: 29 miles

NOTE: Roving golf cart sells glowing doo-dads.



NAME: Skyview Drive-In

ADDRESS: Route 88, Carmichaels

TELEPHONE: 724-966-2364

TICKETS: $6; $2 (under 11)

NUMBER OF SCREENS: 2

OPENED: 1946

DISTANCE FROM DOWNTOWN: 41 miles



NAME: Pioneer Drive-In

ADDRESS: Route 8, Butler

TELEPHONE: 724-284-5003

URL: www.pioneerdrive-in.com

TICKETS: $6; $3 (under 11); $12 per carload on Thursdays

NUMBER OF SCREENS: 5

OPENED: 1958

DISTANCE FROM DOWNTOWN: 33 miles



NAME: Malden Drive-In

ADDRESS: 380 Old National Rd., West Brownsville

TELEPHONE: 724-785-5310

URL: www.malden-drive-in.com

TICKETS: $10 per carload

NUMBER OF SCREENS: 1

OPENED: 1947

DISTANCE FROM DOWNTOWN: 29 miles



NAME: Comet Drive-In

ADDRESS: Highway 119 North, Connellsville

TELEPHONE: 724-628-6160

TICKETS: $6; under 11 free

NUMBER OF SCREENS: 2

DISTANCE FROM DOWNTOWN: 40 miles



NAME: Palace Garden Drive-In

ADDRESS: 225 Indian Springs Rd., Indiana

TELEPHONE: 724-465-9032

NUMBER OF SCREENS: 1

OPENED: 1950

DISTANCE FROM DOWNTOWN: 46 miles

NOTE: Opens end of May



NAME: Hilltop Drive-In

ADDRESS: State Route 8, Chester, W. Va.

TELEPHONE: 304-387-1611

TICKETS: $6; $2 (under 11)

NUMBER OF SCREENS: 1

DISTANCE FROM DOWNTOWN: 32 miles



NOTE: Due to re-open in May after fire last year

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