Here’s the opposite of a coffee-table book

Just a few weeks ago, I got excited about a story I found about Alabama’s drive-ins. Not only was it a great round-up of the current status of the drive-ins of that state, it also made mention of a good book, Drive-in Theaters: A History from Their Inception in 1933 by Kerry Segrave. I bought a copy of it, and now I’m here to tell you all about it.

Thankfully, there’s no shortage of books about drive-ins, but most of them are more like coffee table books, heavy on beautiful photos but light on the details of drive-in history. Segrave’s book is the opposite of that. Aside from a decent cover photo for this 2006 reissue, its pictures are black and white and awful all over; they look like third-generation newspaper prints. But you’ll probably never find a better source of well-annotated facts about drive-ins from their origins till 1992, when the book was first published.

(By the way, this review uses parts of what I wrote about the book on Amazon.com. Of course, the version here is better.)

Kerry Segrave is a researcher. Reading Drive-In Theaters, I can just see him at a UCLA library back then, thumbing through old issues of Variety and taking notes on 3×5 index cards. Clearly, he poured weeks of his life into this book, which includes excellent appendices, copious footnotes, and an extensive bibliography. For the sheer volume of information about the history of drive-ins, this book is unmatched.

But when the time comes for Segrave to transfer all that information into a narrative, the results are a mixed bag. The chapters detailing the early history and growth of drive-ins often create an interesting story. Other chapters, such as “The Audience” look like a pile of index cards rewritten as one-paragraph summaries, one after another. The title should have warned you – this book can be pretty dry.

It gets even drier when statistics are involved. There are no tables in the body of the book; every instance that called for one was instead handled as descriptive sentences. Here’s one example: “Picture preference of those questioned in 1949 and 1950 were; comedies 25 percent (33 percent in 1950), 23 percent drama (23), 21 percent musicals (18), 18 percent Westerns (14), 5 percent romance (8), and 15 percent expressed no preference (4).” Whenever he wrote a few of these in a row, my eyes glazed over. There are plenty of other, longer non-tables like this, but I’ll spare you.

My favorite part of this book was its Introduction, where Segrave lays out a few themes that he sometimes uses in the body of the work. For example, he explains why drive-ins weren’t globally popular the way they were in the US. “(B)efore drive-ins could spring up all over, a country had to be wealthy; it had to have a good deal of vacant, accessible, relatively cheap land; and the country’s inhabitants had to be financially well placed, have automobiles, and enjoy an emotional relationship with their cars.”

Segrave also points to poor film quality, weak projectors and bad sound as indicators that, back then at least, the success of drive-ins was guaranteed as soon as they opened the gate. This effortless early profit made it harder for drive-ins to adapt to changing times. “Drive-ins declined in part because success came too easily at the start. Operators made little effort. When attendance declined, the cavalier way operators treated patrons came back to haunt them. It couldn’t be undone.”

The deepest thought from the book was that drive-ins were a mere symptom of society. Folks stopped going to indoor movies before drive-ins bloomed, underscoring the likelihood that drive-ins drew from a separate audience. Then beginning roughly around 1960, Hollywood produced fewer family-friendly movies. It became acceptable to wear work clothes at an indoor theater. Later, cable and VCRs brought uncut movies to every TV set. From Segrave’s perspective, the fading of the drive-in industry was inevitable.

This book is rather gloomy, understandable since it was written during the industry’s freefall period. Still, I’m glad I bought it, and if you’re a drive-in fan, I heartily recommend it for your bookshelf. But to get your friends pumped up to visit a drive-in this weekend, you’d be better off with a coffee-table book.

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