Jim Shulman | Baby Boomer Memories: Now extinct in the Berkshires, drive-ins were fun for all ages

As the summer is ending I reflect back to the days of my youth, when a fun activity was going to the drive-in theater.

The Berkshires had at least six that I recall, with Briggs Open Air Theater in Dalton as the first. It opened in 1947, but was short lived. Pittsfield had the Berkshire Drive-In on West Housatonic Street and the Pittsfield Drive-In on Merrill Road.

Lanesborough had the Sunset Park Auto Theater, North Adams had Coury's Drive-In and Adams had the Hoosac Drive-In. I also read that in 1950 there was a Skyline Drive-In on Route 116 in Savoy. One was proposed in 1963 for Great Barrington, but never got off the ground.

Presently the nearest operating drive-in is the Hollywood Drive-In Theater on Route 66 in Averill Park, N.Y., about 40 minutes from Pittsfield.

The first drive-in in the U.S. grew out of creative problem solving. In about 1930, Richard Hollingshead, of Camden, N.J., tied two sheets to trees in his yard and put a movie projector on his car hood to show movies on the sheets. He did this for his mother-in-law who apparently was too large to sit comfortably in a movie theater seat.

Over the next few years Hollingshead experimented with his idea and added a ramping system so many cars would be able to view films on a bigger screen. He patented the drive-in concept and opened the first drive-in in 1933 for 25 cents a car. It wasn't until the 1940s that the in-car speakers replaced an outdoor speaker.

Drive-in theaters offered patrons some pluses over cinemas. Parents could bring kids and not need babysitters, bring their own snacks and even smoke cigarettes and not bother other patrons.

Many parents came early so their kids could enjoy playground equipment near the screen while others brought their kids in pajamas knowing they'd fall asleep during the flicks.

Teens would often hide friends in the car trunk to avoid individual ticket prices. Others would pile into the car when there was one price for all. The drive-in was a popular dating place and famous for "necking."

After putting the speaker in the car window and getting comfortable, patrons could sit back for the double feature as the sun set. Horns would honk when a hero overcame a villain, couples kissed or when there was a glitch in the film. Some younger folks would sit out on the hood, lean back on the front window and enjoy the summer breezes.

Intermission between two films was announced by food ads and was a time for the restroom break and the concession stand for soft drinks, popcorn, candy, ice cream novelties hot dogs and/or pizza. (Working for a friend managing the Sunset, I was relieved of pizza making duties when I mixed up the red pepper with the oregano. But the drive-in sold a lot of soda that night!)

As color television gained popularity in the 1970s and video recorders flooded the market in the '80s, people found it more convenient watching movies at home.

Initially drive-ins showed older releases and B movies, but as attendance dropped, many gravitated to films for more mature audiences including the X-rated variety.

By the 1980s drive-in theaters found it difficult to make ends meet. In less than 50 years from the first drive-in, hundreds of these theaters either totally closed down or became flea markets, concert venues and even places for church services.

For many of them, the land became more valuable for shopping centers, box stores or housing tracts. In the 1960s there were over 4,000 drive-in theaters in the U.S. and now in 2017 there are an estimated 338 left. Many of these are struggling for survival.

Now and then in the Berkshires public parks, communities revive outdoor showings of movies to citizens who don't mind the crowds and mosquitoes, but the memorable drive-in theaters have been gone for decades.

Jim Shulman, a Pittsfield native living in Ohio, is the founder of the Berkshire Carousel and author of "Berkshire Memories: A Baby Boomer Looks Back at Growing Up in Pittsfield." If you have a memory of a Berkshire baby-boom landmark or event you'd like to share or read about, please write Jim at jesjmskali@aol.com.


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