1947 Essay

Notes on Management of Drive-In Theatres

Ten Years’ Experience Yields Suggestions in Operation of the Auto Drive-In Cinema
By Carl Hellpen
E. M. Loew’s Theatres

(Transcriber’s Note: This article was part of the 1946-47 Theatre Catalog, a really cool book published by Jay Emanuel Publications, Inc. You can buy a copy on Amazon. More notes after the essay.)

The automobile drive-in theatre is definitely here to stay. It claims no superiority over the indoor theatre, but as I just said, it is here to stay, despite the expressed opinions of some operators of the other type of theatre, primarily to its practical side. It has proven a solution to the entertainment problem of many thousands of auto-owning families who do not regularly go to the theatre or see pictures indoors, due to physical handicaps or family circumstances.

Much has been said as to advantages of the drive-in, both pro and con, but little about the business side from the standpoint of management or operation. The industry is comparatively young but the experience of management is not too great. The drive-in theatre patron today is of quite a different class than when these theatres were first conceived. They have turned into a source of entertainment for the whole family and chauffeur-driven cars are not today an oddity in this type of theatre.

The out-door theatre must be placed in the hands of those who enjoy working out of doors, persons who are not adverse to weather conditions that may present themselves during the season. Weather conditions, from my personal experience, are not a handicap. I have found that unless temperatures are too severe or storms exceedingly heavy it makes little difference to business. The development of the latest equipment, such as the in-car speaker, allows patrons to close their car windows, sit in comfort and enjoy the full program.

The drive-in theatre is basically the same as any other large out-door attraction. They must be kept attractive and pleasing to the eye with normal comforts the same as are expected in any indoor theatre, clean and attractive rest and powder rooms. Service, while it is under the stars, must be courteous and attentive and the welfare of the patron given first thought at all times. All attendants should have a pleasing personality and be nicely uniformed for their positions.

In maintaining conveniences all operations of the drive-in should not overlook the concession stand. It is a profitable asset and should be located in such a way to be of service to the greatest number of patrons with the least inconvenience. The use of car vendors should not be considered of one wishes to increase the popularity of the theatre. Privacy is one of today’s selling points of this type of theatre and nothing should detract from it to mar the enjoyment of the program being offered.

There is quite a contrast in the maintenance of a drive-in and an indoor theatre. Managers of drive-ins should be those who have knowledge of outdoor maintenance and exploitation. While they do not have to think about keeping carpets clean, they do have to give thought ot seeing that the grass is kept cut, hedges trimmed, and seasonable flower beds maintained, as well as other outdoor accessories. The whole plant should be kept in a manner so attractive that a passing motorist will want to come in.

The frequent painting of all structural parts of the plant is most important. Not only does this make for a cleanly appearance but it is by far the best protection of the property. The entrance to the grounds, as well as the exit, should be well kept. Consideration should be given for a good lighting scheme for the attraction of patrons, bearing foremost in mind that this illumination should not reflect into the theatre where naturally it must be kept dark as possible. Where the bumper type ramp is used there should be protective white paint used for the guidance and protection of the drivers.

The drive-in theatre preferably situated on a main thoroughfare should be located so that the screen is not visible from the highway. Otherwise it is liable to create the hazard of roadside parking. One way to prevent this is the use of tall shrubbery, such as cedars, privet, and other greens along the theatre property boundaries. These are far more attractive, if well kept and cared for, than unsightly high board fences.

My experience has been that the drive-in theatre can be properly policed and patrons can be given every protection very easily. This is accomplished by a periodical policing of ramps by a uniformed usher, trained to quietly and diplomatically correct any of the exploited abuses that have been publicized to the detriment of the modern drive-in theatre. Incidentally I may say the times when it is necessary to speak to occupants of cars are few and far between.

While the indoor theatre can display to the public by means of marquee and lobby displays of future programs, thought should be given in the out-of-door theatre to see that proper advertising is used to catch the eye of the fast-moving motorist. Much care should be taken to see that display boards are kept in a way that they do not become an eyesore or distract in any way from the natural beauty of the theatre property or general surroundings. Needless to say, driveways and walks should be kept clear and clean and properly marked for the guidance of patrons.

One source of great interest is what to do with the drive-in theatre property and equipment during the winter months. There are many ways the property can be utilized provided some thought is given to it at the time of the construction of the theatre. Should it be located in a community lacking in outdoor winter sports facilities there are numerous possible uses. With some forethought an ice skating rink can be easily installed and the theatre ramps make most convenient parking spaces. If there is sufficient area to the property, space could be allotted to a bowling alley building. Then there is the possibility of installing a convenient indoor neighborhood theatre in which the drive-in projection equipment, with a slight change over, could be utilized. These suggestions naturally apply to drive-ins located in northern climes where for climatic reasons the out-of-door theatre must be closed for five months or more. They show, however, the possibility of making the theatre property a year round operation.

The newly constructed drive-in should not be without a gas station and service for at least minor auto repairs. There are of year-round value to the community and profitable to the theatre owner as well. If the theatre is on a main or good secondary highway, diner or restaurant service can be offered to the theatre patron and general public, making for another source of revenue.

If the drive-in is so constructed, it is less seasonable in operation. At the end of the season all equipment and inventory should be removed to a warehouse for safe keeping and made ready for re-installation with the return of good weather. The cost of this warehouse storage is economical and affords much greater protection from climatic conditions than keeping it on the theatre site under the eye of a watchman.

Transcriber’s note: Yes, that’s how it abruptly ends. That Theatre Catalog was copyright 1947, and it’s unlikely that such an ephemeral work was renewed in 1975. The essay was less than a quarter of one percent of that amazingly cool book, so even if it’s still copyrighted, its use in this review of the book is fair use. (I have a longer review in this post.) A Google search for Carl Hellpen turned up absolutely nothing; I hope this page immortalizes him. So oh mighty lawyers, please do not hurt me! If you have any issue with this or any other Carload page, please leave a message and we’ll talk. Okay?

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