Nov. 3: Delsea Drive-In, Vineland NJ

It’s Day 307 of my virtual Drive-In-a-Day Odyssey. It’s Friday, so Halloween’s behind us, meaning no more special spooky showings anywhere. I really needed to find drive-ins that were still showing movies in November, and that meant a four-hour drive south from Coxsackie NY to the Delsea Drive-In in Vineland NJ.

According to Cinema Treasures, the Delsea was a single-screen, 700-car drive-in operated by the Budco chain when it opened on April 29, 1949. Budco was later bought by American Multi Cinema, which abruptly closed it in July 1987. It sat quietly for over 15 years as the rest of the drive-ins in New Jersey, the birthplace of the drive-in movie, also closed.

In 2003 a local pediatrician, Dr. John DeLeonardis, bought the property to build a skate park to keep his patients active. Then he saw the 100-foot screen was still in pretty good shape, so he started down the path of restoring the drive-in. The Delsea reopened in July 2004 with the same projectionist who was there on its last night in 1987.

DeLeonardis added a second screen in 2008. In 2011, he installed a bank of solar panels, making the Delsea the first solar-powered drive-in. (Of course, that’s not literally true; the panels generate into the grid during the day, and the Delsea uses electricity at night, but the net usage is pretty close to self-sufficiency.) wrote in 2011 that DeLeonardis’ wife Jude, can be found weekend nights working the snack bar, where she put edamame, stir-fry asparagus, wraps and other healthy choices on the menu.

The Delsea is the home theater for the Drive-In Film Festival, a non-profit organization that brings new, family-friendly independent films to drive-in theaters free of charge to promote filmmaking and drive-ins. They’ve got a great video about themselves and the Delsea on YouTube, although the embedded video of the day is a different one focusing more specifically on DeLeonardis and the results of his work.

On a wonderfully, unseasonably warm evening around 70 degrees, I was treated to the latest blockbuster entry in the Thor series, which made a great drive-in movie. It was nice to watch in the state where the industry was invented.

Miles Today / Total: 242 / 34685 (rounded to the nearest mile)

Movie Showing / Total Active Nights: Thor: Ragnarok / 186

Nearby Restaurant: When I don’t want to think about dinner, I’ll often pick pizza, so I went over to the Taste of Italy Pizzeria in Vineland. The place was all right inside, but I just wanted something to take back to my room for some quiet munching time. The chicken parmigiana pizza was the perfect compromise between something familiar and something uniquely Vineland.

Where I Virtually Stayed: After my longest drive in weeks, I just wanted something dependable, which to me is another name for Hampton Inn. The one in Vineland had high ceilings in its breakfast area, which gives us a much airier feel, and there’s a nice indoor pool and hot tub. Meanwhile, the usual amenities were there in my room and the usual solid breakfast was waiting in the morning. Ready for another drive!

Only in Vineland: For decades, the most famous place in Vineland was the Palace of Depression, an eighteen-spired, pastel-colored castle in a swamp, built in 1932 out of rusted auto parts and mud. According to a nice summary on Roadside America, George Daynor built the palace to show that the Great Depression was beatable. Daynor said he was guided to the site by an angel, and that he ate frogs, fish, rabbits and squirrels during the three years it took to build.

Next stop: Bengies Drive-In Theatre, Middle River MD.

A Contemporary Glimpse of The First Drive-In

Line drawing of the first drive-in theater

from the September 1933 issue of Popular Mechanics via Google Books

Here’s something fun that I ran into today, and I wanted to share it with you. In its September 1933 issue, Popular Mechanics ran a superb illustration of the very first drive-in theater, in Camden NJ. It had opened in June 1933, and its marquee simply read “Drive-In Theatre”.

I found this on Google Books, which includes a treasure trove of searchable issues of Popular Mechanics, Life, Billboard, and even some magazines that never mention drive-ins. I’ve read a lot of drive-in books, but I don’t recall ever seeing this wonderful, crisp drawing before. I presume that the copyright for this issue wasn’t renewed in 1961 and that it then slipped into the public domain. If I’m wrong, please correct me gently.

The headline above the illustration read Drive-In Movie Holds Four Hundred Cars. Here’s the one (long) paragraph that accompanied it:

“Motorists can sit in comfort in their own cars and enjoy the movies at a drive-in theater in Camden, N. J. This outdoor talking-picture theater accommodates 400 cars so that about 1,600 persons can view a performance without leaving their automobiles. This is made possible by seven rows of grades inclined so that vision from the rear car is not impaired by those in front. The cars are parked at the front of each row on a five-per-cent grade. Each aisle is fifty feet deep, giving ample room for cars to enter and leave, and the theater is entirely surrounded by trees. The motor-movie fans, even though seated in the last row, 500 feet from the screen, have no difficulty in seeing or hearing. The screen is sixty feet wide and a new method of controlled directional sound carries the words or music to each car with equal, modulated volume. The outdoor theater is expected to appeal particularly to those who do not like to drive through downtown districts to attend a movie.”

In his authoritative Drive-In Theaters, Kerry Segrave disputes those numbers, writing that the ground plan shows six rows for 336 cars, and that the screen was only 40 feet wide. The theater was sold within three years “to a man who ‘moved’ it to Union NJ.” Still, it’s fun to see such a clear picture of the start of something big.

Drive-in author tells USA Today his top ten

Mesa Drive-In marquee with photo creditAt one level, I look at USA Today’s story, posted late last night, as pure link bait. Any top ten list is designed to pull in visitors from all over just because its title is intriguing and its slide show is eye candy. On the other hand, they used my photo! So now I can change that line on my resume to “Award-winning photographer featured in USA Today.”

Where was I? Oh yes, the article. Well-known drive-in historian Don Sanders gave USA Today’s Larry Bleiberg his top ten favorite drive-in theaters. I don’t know if they were the top ten active drive-ins, or whether it just happens that Sanders’ favorites all happen to still be alive. There are notes and photos for each, so you really should go read it! But here is a quick summary: