According to the Roanoke Times, the Starlite Drive-In of Christiansburg VA is running into problems with its neighbors. The problems started when it switched from in-car speakers and FM radios to a sound system at the concession stand.
By now, we know the problems with traditional drive-in movie audio. In-car speakers get snapped off when forgetful drivers leave. Radios can drain car batteries if the ignition key is set wrong. But with outdoor speakers, it’s hard to strike a balance that’s loud enough to hear but quiet enough to keep the neighbors happy.
It’s funny sometimes how technology can come full circle. When drive-ins first popped up in the 1930s, they used loudspeakers to play the sounds of each movie. Some used a single speaker; some scattered a few speakers on poles. There really weren’t any good alternatives until RCA invented individual car speakers, which weren’t deployed until after World War II. That technological advance was one of the sparks of the postwar drive-in theater boom.
Kerry Segrave wrote in his book Drive-In Theaters that loudspeakers were the greatest source of friction between early drive-ins and their neighbors. Several run-ins with the law are documented, including the 1935 arrest and conviction of a Los Angeles drive-in owner for violating a noise ordinance enacted with outdoor loudspeakers in mind.
The Times article didn’t mention whether Starlite owner Peggy Beasley and manager Brian Atkins were aware of that history, but they’re reliving part of it. Their neighbors complained, so Christiansburg Police Chief Mark Sisson dropped by to impose a volume level to line up with the town’s noise ordinance. That left the sound too low to hear some dialogue, Beasley said. “People who had been here couldn’t come back because they couldn’t hear the movie.” Business has been bad, so they’re asking the city to revisit the drive-in’s allowable volume.
No one asked me, but the obvious, tested solution is FM radio sound plus cheap rental radios. Till they figure that out, the Times has much, much more about the townspeople backing the Starlite and the neighbors who keep calling the police, so you should go read it!