A night at the drive-in
A line of cars backs up traffic on Highway 99W. It is hours before dusk, still late afternoon, but this can only mean one thing: It's a Friday night in Newberg.
Friday and Saturday nights in the summer closely follow long-held traditions. That's when Oregonians from near and far come to one of the state's last remaining outdoor theaters, the 99W Drive-In. The iconic theater, owned by Brian Francis, has been a family affair for decades and is now in its 66th season.
From spring until the end of the season around late October, movie goers are treated to a double feature, sometimes mixes of new releases plus nostalgic classics. The current showing features "Toy Story 4" and "The Lion King," which may make a driver question what the actual year is. But Francis said movies like these, which are very nostalgic, are part of what keeps people coming back to the drive-in.
"That's why Disney is doing the remakes is (because they are) multi-generational," he said. "People saw 'Aladdin,' 'The Lion King.' People want to bring their kids to it."
Francis said a drive-in theater offers a level of freedom that a classic theater doesn't. Not only is it a double feature, but people can get out of their vehicles and walk around. He said the only thing they can't do is bring a grill and barbecue, or light off fireworks.
"They say movie theaters are going to go away because everything will go to digital streaming," he said. "We would be swept away by that."
But so far, the drive-in and Francis's Cameo Theater haven't been swept away. He said drive-ins usually have the benefit of owning the land on which they sit, which helps keep them in business. He said those that remain keep busy in the summer season. But he also hasn't heard of anyone wanting to start a new drive-in.
"I had a guy from South Carolina who owns a drive-in come, and he was surprised at how young people were here," Francis said. "I guess it's a different population dynamic wherever you're located."
The drive-in was opened in August 1953, showing "Sea Devils" and "Under the Sahara" as the first features. It was built by Francis's grandfather, Ted Francis, who also owned the Cameo. Now on its third screen since opening, the drive-in has had its share of challenges. For example, business slowed in 1990, and when the screen at the time was knocked down by wind there was concern the business might follow suit. However, the owners found a replacement screen from a drive-in in Portland that had closed. And despite a slow start to the 1990s, each year there is a larger car count than the one before.
Like most of America, Oregon had dozens of drive-in theaters during the heyday of the 1950s. However, only three remain today: the Highway 99W, the La Grande Drive-In and the M&F Drive-In in Milton-Freewater. Newberg's theater is uniquely located as it allows visitors from the greater Portland area, as well as Washington residents, to come and catch a movie.
"If you live in Washington you have to drive 200 miles to find one," Francis said. "If someone wants to go to the drive-in they come here."
Matt Meyer, a professor of cinematic arts at George Fox University who also heads the annual Fox Film Festival, said he's always been "impressed and intrigued" by the line of cars that snakes down Highway 99W heading into the theater. He said while he hasn't done any research on the topic, he has a few thoughts on why, at least locally, drive-in culture has experienced a resurgence.
"First and foremost, there's a sense of nostalgia about going to the drive-in," Meyer said. "Eating popcorn and hot dogs as the sun sets, chatting with friends while you wait for the picture to start -- it all hearkens of a simpler, happier time with a sense of community that's sometimes hard to find in the present."
Meyer added that he thinks over the years, media has moved toward smaller and more portable formats. For example, he said for music, consumers went from large LP records to CDs, and now MP3s and streaming. He added that there is now nothing for people to physically own in that regard.
"We've gone from glorious motion picture palaces to multiplexes, to a world where now more people watch films on TVs or smart phones than in theaters," he said. "I think there's something magical that happens when you share a film experience with a group of others -- jokes are funnier, scares are scarier. Drive-ins give us a way to experience that communal experience while still enjoying the bubble of privacy provided by a car."
Meyer said, personally, watching a film on a laptop is the equivalent of listening to a song on Spotify.
"But watching a film in a big theater is a communal event much like a live concert, where the band interacts with the audience," Meyer said. "So to some extent, going to a drive-in is like going to an outdoor concert. It's a celebration of summer, of entertainment, of community. Plus there's always to the possibility of some smooching in the back seat."
We've already passed National Drive-In Movie Day, which fell on June 6. According to USA Today, the first drive-in theater in America launched on that day in 1933, when Richard M. Hollingshead, Jr. opened the first one in the Garden State of New Jersey. A mere 15 years later, there were nearly 4,000 nationwide.
Today spells a different story for drive-in theaters. As of 2018, according to USA Today, there was slightly more than 300 drive-ins operating across the country. There were none in Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii, Louisiana or North Dakota.
According to www.driveinmovie.com, a resource for finding drive-in theaters around the country, the grand experiment of drive-in movies began when Hollingshead got a hold of a movie projector and began showing films in his driveway. After trial and error, he applied for a patent in 1932, and was awarded it the following year. He opened the Automobile Movie Theater shortly thereafter.
The patent was eventually ruled invalid and drive-in theaters began sprouting up across the country into the 1960s, which is considered the golden age of drive in theaters. However, according to the website, those numbers would begin to decline dramatically starting in the 1970s.
"There have been many reasons attributed to the rapid and steep decline of drive-in movies," the authors of the website state. "But we believe the three biggest reasons are the move to Daylights Savings Time, the introduction of VHS movies and increasing land values and taxes. In 1966, the Uniform Time Act mandated Daylight Savings Time (DST) throughout the United States from April thru October. This meant sunset would come an hour later during the prime drive-in movie season. So in many parts of the country, drive-in movies theaters were not able to start their first movie until close to 10 p.m. which in turn meant it would not be over until close to midnight. This was simply too late during the week for most families on which the drive-in owners had come to rely on for business. So while weekends remained busy for most, business was minimal during the week, which severely cut into revenue."
Ongoing sprawl in American cities also played its part, the group stated. Urban sprawl enveloped the drive-ins and land became so valuable that owners could make more from selling the land their theaters sat on than by continuing to operate the theater. The website states now it is common to see big box stores on land where drive in theaters used to be.
"The closures continued into the 1980s and 1990s," the website stated. "Then in the late 1990s and early 2000s, drive-in theaters started to make a modest comeback with several closed drive-ins being renovated and re-opened and even several new drive-ins being constructed during this time. For a period going into the 2000s, it looked as if there was going to be a drive-in renaissance. But then once again, the drive-ins were dealt a crippling blow. The movie industry starting converting their movies from film to digital in the early 2000s. This saved the movie industry a significant amount of money. However, it required theaters to purchase new and expensive digital projectors that can cost over $60,000. So began the phrase 'Go Digital or Go Dark,' which means theaters must purchase the expensive digital projectors needed to show today's new releases or close. Many drive-in movies, especially smaller, rural theaters, closed because they could not afford to purchase the new digital equipment."
Fortunately, the 99W Drive-In won a contest sponsored by Honda, which paid much of the cost of installing a digital projector at the theater.
Francis said there have been several books written eulogizing and outlining the decline of drive-in theaters. He said his grandfather blamed the VCR. Francis himself said the economic policies under President Ronald Reagan – often referred to as Reaganonomics – are at fault for the decline as they ushered in an era with skating rinks and bowling alleys, which lead people away from the drive-ins. He also said the generation of people wanting to own and operate a drive-in grew old and no one took up the mantle.
"The Newberg 99W Drive-In got lucky because me, the grandchild, wanted to do the business," he said. "Otherwise we might have closed decades ago. That's probably the case in some of the other drive-ins around. You have to have a passion to want to do it and live the life to do it. It's what keeps the 99W Drive-In going."
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