Given that Americans love both driving and moviegoing, it seems inevitable that the notion of combining them would have dawned on some enterprising person. But the inventor of the drive-in movie, a chemical company scion named Richard M. Hollingshead, Jr., found his idea so wildly original that he applied for a patent. The U.S. Patent Office, incredibly, agreed. And so it was that the world’s first drive-in movie theater opened in Pennsauken, N.J., in the summer of 1933.
Hollingshead made his new business family-friendly: suitable for kids, and easy on the pocketbook. He charged admission by the carload instead of by the person, and encouraged parents to bring their children, no matter how young or how loud.
The drive-in boom took off after World War II, peaking in the 1950s. At that time, there were drive-ins all over the Valley: Fishkill, Kingston, Newburgh — there was even a U.S. Military Academy Drive-In at West Point.
The typical Eisenhower Administration drive-in had a large screen, a gleaming concession stand, ramped parking spaces (which provided a reasonably unobstructed view), and a speaker festooned to a wooden post, from which poured audio that “makes every character sound as if he is speaking from the inside of a gym locker,” in the words of humorist Bill Bryson. So why were there almost as many drive-ins as regular movie houses? The answer: privacy. By the mid-’50s, teenagers had replaced families as the principal drive-in demographic (a dark back seat being a prime spot for making out, getting drunk, smoking, and other nefarious activities).
By the Reagan years, the price of real estate and the ubiquity of VCRs forced most drive-ins to shutter their concession-stand doors. Their ruins littered the country, decaying screens rising from the weeds, speakers rusting on rotted posts.
Still, the drive-in endures, and lately has undergone something of a resurgence. This is fueled by nostalgia, as well as technological advancement. But mostly, Hollingshead’s business plan has proved surprisingly durable. What sold customers on the drive-in during the Great Depression sells them still, in the throes of our current financial crisis.
“It’s a good deal,” says Roger Babcock, owner of Coxsackie’s Hi-Way Drive-In Theatre. “Most drive-ins play two movies for the price of one. So for one $8 ticket, you get one first-run movie and one that’s two or three weeks old.”
For families watching the bottom line, drive-ins have particular appeal. “For $3, you can bring a kid for four hours. You can bring babies. You can bring your dog,” Babcock says. “I’m cheaper than a babysitter.”
Hi-Way Drive-In Theatre
10769 Rte. 9W, Coxsackie. 518-731-8672
No. of screens: 4 • Year opened: 1951 • Capacity: 650 cars • Admission: $8 adults, $3 children, under 3 free
The Hi-Way’s relatively remote location (“in the middle of the boondocks,” Babcock says) is also its greatest strength, allowing it the space to have a whopping four screens. This means they can show R-rated movies — most drive-ins screen PG and PG-13 fare exclusively. This gives a family options. “You can pop the hatch and have the kids watch the Disney movie, while you sit in front and watch something else,” he explains. Teenagers and tweens can bring lawn chairs and portable radios and do likewise. The vintage neon marquee rounds out the experience.
The marquee — with FDR’s profile — at the Hyde Park Drive-In
Photograph by Sharon Hardy
Hyde Park Drive-in Theatre
510 Albany Post Rd. (Rte. 9), Hyde Park. 845-229-4738
No. of screens: 1 • Year opened: 1949 • Capacity: 670 cars • Admission: $7 adults, $4 children 5-11, under 5 free
This venerable drive-in is across the street from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, and has the late president’s monocled face on the marquee. The Hyde Park is so old, in fact, that FDR himself just missed being able to go. The 82-foot screen is every bit as big as it sounds, and the capacity means that on pleasant summer evenings, there can be 1,500 people dashing in and around the concession stand. Check out Tuesday bargain night.
Fair Oaks Drive-In Theatre
Rte. 17M, Fair Oaks/Middletown. 914-361-5774
No. of screens: 2 • Year built: 1991 • Capacity: 800 cars • Admission: $7 ages 12+, $4 ages 5-11, under 5 free
A testament to the phoenix-like resurgence of drive-ins, the Fair Oaks was a casualty of the drive-in decline, shutting down in 1981. A decade later, it reopened, but with two screens instead of one. “Screen One is the larger of their two screens, if you’re eager to see the BIG picture,” the Web site explains. Thursday night is bargain night: $5 for grown-ups, $3 for kids.
CR 46 (between Rtes. 44 & 55), Poughkeepsie. 845-452-3445
No. of screens: 1 • Year opened: 1955 • Capacity: 750 cars • Admission: $7 ages 12+, $4 ages 5-11, under 4 free
The Overlook is one of the most picturesque drive-ins, with the theater area and its six-story-high screen surrounded by tall trees. But the key to its success is simple. “We play the top product,” says owner Fred Cohen. “We try to get pictures the public will enjoy. We’ve been at it a long time.” The char-broiled Black Angus burgers on crispy kaiser rolls don’t hurt, either. Monday night is bargain night, with two bucks off admission.
11 Warwick Turnpike (off Rte. 94), Warwick. 845-986-4440
No. of screens: 3 • Year opened: 1950 • Capacity: 700 cars • Admission: $8 adults, $5 ages 4-11 & seniors, under 4 free
As often happens in the world of drive-ins, the Warwick is a family enterprise, both literally and figuratively. Frank Seber, who once worked for the now-defunct Tri States Drive-in in Matamoras, Penn., purchased the Warwick in 1977. He retired in 1997, ceding control of the theater to his daughter. The theater has the distinction of being the first drive-in to open for the season: screenings begin the weekend after St. Patrick’s Day.