Carload’s grand re-opening

Driving America drive-in type sign at The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn MI

This Douglas Auto Theatre sign spent over 30 years at a Kalamazoo MI drive-in. Now it hangs at The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn. Photo by PunkToad

In case you haven’t noticed, is active again. The graphics are prettier, the news is as timely as ever, but there are a few changes.

Carload began as a way to keep track of what was showing at Colorado drive-in theaters. Way back then, there were 12 active drive-ins in the state, most of them didn’t have web pages, Facebook didn’t exist, and long-distance calls cost money. Listing the theaters and what they had planned for the weekend was helpful.

Now that’s all different. At this writing, only one drive-in in the US or Canada doesn’t have its own site or at least a Facebook page. Everybody’s got a cell phone, and long distance is free or dirt cheap. Having one more site with movie listings isn’t helpful any longer.

Instead, Carload has been redesigned as a mobile-first site. The front-page emphasis on drive-in news is still strong, but now we also keep track of every active drive-in in the US and Canada. If you’re still curious about what’s showing, just call the phone number or click through to the theater’s official web page.

Thanks for your support during this transition. If you have a great drive-in photo, please add it to the Carload Flickr Pool.

You don’t want to read this “drive-in” book

Some people enjoy writing scathing reviews, but not me. If I find something nifty, I want to share it, but if I find something yucky, I don’t want to give it free publicity. Yet here I am to warn you about an ebook I picked up yesterday: How to Build a Drive-In Theater Business by T K Johnson.

This book reads like Volume 82 of the Build a Business Collection, the name of the entity which holds the copyright. That’s understandable, since Johnson has dozens of pages of “How to Build a (something) Business” listings on Amazon. There are a few generally helpful notes and ideas, but this book contains effectively no specifics for folks who want to start a drive-in as opposed to a convenience store or a butcher shop.

(By the way, pieces of this review appeared in my Amazon review of the book, but this version is much better.)

The drive-in passages are painful to read. Here are the first two sentences under the heading “Negatives”, verbatim: “Drive-in theaters are considered to be one of the best places to hang out with friends back in the 60s until late 80s and early 90s. However as times changed, so did the films and the famous drive-in theaters slowly faded in the background as people embraced the new technology.” You know, before word processors, it was difficult to write sentences that are this mangled, with unmatched tenses and orphaned references.

After the few sections that mention drive-ins, the rest of the book ignores them. In the section “Where to set up your business?” the author recommends running the new business online, but if you must have a brick and mortar location, you’ll need to register your business in that state. All the drive-in theaters I know are definitely brick and mortar.

The most disappointing aspect of this is that there are definitely enough real drive-in startup necessities to fill a book. Chapter topics would include finding a site, rezoning, working with neighbors, utilities, screen construction, parking lot grading, ADA-compliant restrooms, digital projection, movie distributors, and many more. Instead, Johnson’s book is about a business’s legal structure, how to hire good people, and other general topics.

There are a zillion books about how to start a business (many written by T K Johnson), and this is one of them. There are still plenty of good books about drive-ins, but this isn’t one of them. You’ll have a better time if you read one of these instead.

How to define the drive-in theater

Blue Moonlight Drive-In at night

The Blue Moonlight Drive-In (Galesburg IL) at night. © DepositPhotos / sgtphoto.

What is a drive-in theater?

That’s not a rhetorical question. Over the years, I’ve called out Things That Are Not Drive-Ins. The most common example of Not is a movie night in a park where everybody sits in chairs or on blankets and the organizers can’t resist calling any outdoor movie a “drive-in.” But the line between Drive-In and Not is getting thinner.

Consider what a drive-in theater requires. It must have a permanent location, although that location can shift. A “pop-up drive-in” that visits various parking lots doesn’t count.

A drive-in theater must have room for cars. Additional pedestrian seating is okay, but you can’t have a drive-in without drivers.

A drive-in needs a screen, but now the line starts to get blurry. Does it need to be a permanent screen? Consider the Blue Starlite Mini Urban Drive-In in Austin TX. As you can see by this photo, the BSMU used a very temporary-looking screen. Other such parking-lot drive-ins have used the side of a building as a screen. Should that disqualify it? I’d say no, so screen permanence isn’t a requirement.

I can’t think of any other requirements, except perhaps that it needs to be open to the public. Whether it uses film or digital, new movies or old, mainstream or porn; whether it’s got a concession stand, food trucks, or nothing; if cars can drive to a particular place to watch movies on a screen, that’s a drive-in theater.

Here’s a related question: When is a drive-in “active,” as opposed to permanently closed? Most cases are obvious. Many drive-ins are dormant over the winter, but like leafless trees in December, that doesn’t mean they’re dead. When a drive-in stays dark through summer, or announces that it won’t reopen, then it’s closed.

Turns out that there are some marginal cases. Consider Manistique MI’s Cinema 2, a single-screen theater named for US Highway 2. The Cinema 2 closed in 2001. Fifteen years later, its screen and buildings were amazingly still in good shape, so civic charities sponsored one-shot movie nights twice in 2016. (The most recent was covered here.) For now, I’d still call that one closed, but if they ramp up to once a month or more, I’d reconsider.

Then there’s the Hilltop in Chester WV. Struggling with the conversion to digital movies, it was closed all summer until it found a film distributor and reopened this month. Was the Hilltop “closed,” or was it just dormant? I’m just glad it’s back now.

There will always be cute little stories about fake drive-ins, like the Kansas elementary school that built one in its gym. These offshoots illustrate how deeply the idea of a drive-in is ingrained even for those unfortunates who haven’t experienced it. Drive-ins are here to stay, and Carload will be here to tell you about them.