Photo by Flickr user Matt DeTurck
Now that we’ve sprung forward, edging our way toward blooming flowers, warmer days, and night-time weather that’s just right for sitting under the stars, it’s time to go to the movies — the drive-in, that is.
Watching double features at the Malco Summer Drive-In has become a favorite seasonal pastime of mine. (I’d prefer it any day over sitting inside a theater, having to share armrests and leg room with other people, especially with talkative strangers who won’t shut their traps or turn off their cell phones long enough to actually enjoy a film.) And Time Warp Drive-In movie nights make the drive-in experience that much better, adding classic films and even more nostalgia to the mix.
I had never seen a drive-in theater in person until 1996, one summer before high school when my aunt brought me and my cousin to Memphis (I lived in small-town Mississippi at the time) for a weekend trip. We hit the area malls, then watched a movie from her convertible at the new-to-me (and oh-wow-we-can-watch-on-a-big-screen-outside!) Summer Drive-In. Our movie selection was a bit risqué for my age (to my aunt’s credit, I don’t think she had a clue how vulgar From Dusk Till Dawn would be), but I will never forget putting the car’s top down, and pulling the speaker box up to the window, our hair blowing in the gentle breeze under a starry sky as we watched the (then) new Quentin Tarantino film.
In the drive-in world, I was a late bloomer, if only due to my age. But drive-ins have a long history. According to the all-knowing internet, a “partial” drive-in theater opened in New Mexico in 1915, where “automobile entrances and places for 40 or more cars within the theater grounds and in-line position to see the pictures and witness all performances on the stage is a feature of the place that will please car owners.” The second-known drive-in was operated in Comanche, Texas, in 1921 by Claude B. Caver, who’d obtained a permit to project silent films downtown and “cars parked bumper to bumper” to witness the screenings.
But the invention of the drive-in as we know it is often credited to Richard M. Hollingshead Jr., whose outdoor theater set-up was first imagined in his own backyard in the 1930s. He experimented by hanging a screen between trees, positioning a radio behind the screen, and setting up a projector on the hood of his car. Hollingshead applied for a patent on the idea in 1932 and opened the first full-fledged drive-in movie theater in Camden, New Jersey, on June 6, 1933.
In the following years, the drive-in became a big deal: By 1948, 15 drive-in theaters had opened in Tennessee, and by 1958, there were 115 in the state. The United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association estimates that more than 4,000 drive-in theaters operated around the nation that year.
Our beloved Summer Drive-In, the last of its kind in Memphis, originally opened in 1948, west of the present-day interstate, and moved to its current location in 1966. For more about the history of the Summer Drive-In, read this article written by Memphis magazine’s very own historian, Vance Lauderdale.
Photo courtesy Balton Sign Company
The original Summer Drive-In
Drive-ins saw a decline in popularity in the 1970s, when media labeled them as “passion pits,” citing that more privacy made way for immoral activities. In an attempt to offset declining attendance, many drive-ins changed formatting from family-friendly films to B movies and exploitation films. Finally, home entertainment — color televisions, VCRs, and video rentals — became the drive-in’s biggest competition, causing them to shutter across the nation. Fast-forward to 2014: There were only 338 drive-in theaters still operating in America.
Luckily, our Summer Drive-In is among them. And thanks to Memphis’ Black Lodge Video and Guerrilla Monster Films, the drive-in continues to draw new fans and bigger crowds with its Time Warp Drive-In series, which launched in 2014 and features classic and cult films. The 2015 series included screenings of King Kong (1933), The Invisible Man (1933), It Came From Outer Space (1953), Barbarella (1968), Charro! (1969, starring Elvis Presley), Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), Escape from New York (1981), This is Spinal Tap (1984), and more.
The 2016 Time Warp series kicks off this weekend (Saturday, March 19th). The season opener, dubbed Dark Urban Worlds: The Films of Martin Scorsese, includes four legendary crime sagas that will make for an all-night, dusk ’til dawn marathon of gangsters, cops, vigilantes, and corruption: Goodfellas (1990), The Departed (2006), Taxi Driver (1976), and After Hours (1985).
The remainder of the 2016 season will include:
Sing-Along Sinema! A Night of Musical Madness, Friday, April 29th - The Blues Brothers (1980), Xanadu (1980), Cry-Baby (1990), and Cannibal! The Musical (1993)
Comic Book Hardcore!, Friday, May 13th - Sin City (2005), The Crow (1994), Blade (1998), and Tank Girl (1995)
Return of the Burn! A Smoke-Filled Night of Hopped-Up Heroes, Saturday, July 16th - Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), Cheech and Chong's Next Movie (1980), Half Baked (1998), and I Drink Your Blood (1970)
Martial Arts Mayhem! (Everybody Was Kung Fu Warping), Saturday, August 20th - Enter the Dragon (1973), Kung Fu Hustle (2004), Iron Monkey (1993), and Black Belt Jones (1974)
Paranoid Visions: The Films of John Carpenter, Friday, September 16th - They Live (1988), In the Mouth of Madness (1994), The Thing (1982), and Prince of Darkness (1987)
Bride of Shocktober! - A Comedy of Horrors, Friday, October 7th - Young Frankenstein (1974), Shaun of the Dead (2004), The Frighteners (1996), and Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988)
Time Warp organizers say more programs may be added to the schedule to better celebrate the drive-in's 50th anniversary.
Admission is $10 per person. Films begin at dusk. Malco Summer Drive-In, 5310 Summer Avenue.