Few things say America more than apple pie, barbeques on the Fourth of July and drive-in movies. From humble beginnings in Depression-era New Jersey to the unprecedented national phenomenon that became a definitive icon of an entire generation, the drive-in theater brought together two of the greatest American passions: the automobile and the movies.
Auto parts salesman Richard Hollingshead opened the world's first Drive-in Theatre in Camden, New Jersey on June 6th, 1933. Its successful debut prompted others to follow, and by the mid 1950s drive-ins numbered well over 4,000, some of which held room for over three thousand cars. But television, indoor theatre multiplexes and soaring real estate values saw to the decline of the drive-in, beginning the late 1970s. Now there just over 400 drive-ins in the country, but those remaining have a dedicated following of devoted fans, who love their movies outdoors in a pleasant, family friendly setting.
The Van Buren Drive-in Theatre, named for its location on Van Buren Blvd in the historic Arlington district of Riverside, California, opened in 1964 with a single screen. Built on the site of a former orange ranch, the theatre was expanded to three screens in 1975. Like most drive-ins, the Van Buren was not built to last more than a decade before it was redeveloped, for a higher value, in the booming Southern California real estate market. Although the Van Buren was never forced to close, because it has always been popular, 40 years of continuous operation did result in some despair.
In 2006 when real estate development fell through, the Van Buren's owners decided to invest in a long postponed remodeling project. First, the latest drive-in theatre technology including FM transmitters and Technalight, the state-of-the-art projection system was installed. Then, the lots were repaved and the screens repainted. The audience appreciated these improvements, and turned out in record numbers.
Beginning in 2007 the old Van Buren was given a new image. Taking cues from the surrounding community's cultural heritage, the marquee, box offices, snack bar and landscaping were set to be remodeled with an "Old California, Orange Ranch" theme. The most striking element of this rebranding is the art mural set to be displayed on the original screen tower facing Van Buren Blvd. Depicting a vista of 1930s era Riverside, the mural is reminiscent of vintage orange crate labels so prized by collectors today, and also reminiscent of the classic drive-in, screen tower decorations that are now almost all completely gone from the country's landscape.
Fortunately the drive-in theatre is not a forgotten relic, but an exciting living history and thanks to Van Buren and other theatres like it, drive-ins are once again poised to be a familiar American movie going experience. In 2015 the Van Buren was among the first drive-ins to install Digital Cinema projection. In a culture where family time has become so rare and the price of movie tickets are breaking the budget, the time is right once more for the drive-in to satisfy the national thirst for affordable, good, quality family entertainment. After all, why just go and see a movie when you can experience one?