At The Drive-Ins: How An Old Venue Concept Reemerged

Mobile T Party
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– Mobile T Party
Drive-ins, an old-school concept, are reemerging as viable options during this crisis. Pictured here: the first patented drive-in theater built by Richard Hollingshead in Camden, N.J., in 1933.

Sometimes it’s the old technologies, the so-called anachronisms, widely taken for granted – pen and paper, landlines, Tupperware, soap and water and other mundane items – that in times of crisis suddenly reemerge. The drive-in, the focus of this week’s magazine, is a quintessentially American concept combining our nation’s twin passions for automobiles and movies that in these unprecedented and social-distanced times has suddenly reappeared triumphantly in the live space.

Thank goodness then for Richard Hollingshead, the person who on June 6, 1933, opened the first patented drive-in theater in Camden, N.J. Like so many great ideas, his began with helping mom. Hollingshead’s mother was uncomfortable in movie theatre seats, so her good son built a mini drive-in in the back yard. The drive-in craze spiked in the late 1950s to mid-’60s with some 5,000 theaters built across the country. 

Pollstar first reported on the reemergence of drive-ins as a viable concert venue April 21, weeks before the idea made its way Stateside. German promoter BigCityBeats announced a club night on April 30, in line with governmental restrictions at a drive-in theater in Düsseldorf, Germany. Five hundred cars occupied by up to two people each heard resident DJ Le Shuuk and friends from the comfort of their autos.  

“It’s been incredible,” D.Live CEO Michael Brill, the event’s promoter, told Pollstar. “The audience is really coming, and it is grateful, really happy and more than willing to experience the program even under restricted circumstances.” 

But you can’t keep a good, reemerging idea down and by May 4, Marc Rebillet, this week’s cover artist (page 17), announced the first U.S. drive-in tour with 12 shows in eight cities booked by UTA’s Christian Bernhardt and Adam Ogushwitz. 

– Let’s All Go To The Drive-In
A pivotal scene from the 1973 film “Grease,” filmed  at the now-extinct Pickwick Drive-In in Burbank, Calif., with John Travolta and Olivia Newton John.
Rebillet, a.k.a. “The Loop Daddy,” noted that tour promoter HotBox put together really “awesome shit on the fly,” including a traveling stage, a green screen to project to the movie screen, a wireless mic and a boom box PA tuned to the cars’ radios. “There’s a billion and one ways to get creative with this,” he says.

Even Live Nation recently announced it would promote the “Drive In – Live Tour” in Denmark hitting four cities this month and next, with artists L.O.C. and Danish radio show Mads & Monopolet, as well as family entertainer Onkel Reje. Each event can hold 600 cars and is compliant with official restrictions.  
Since then, additional high-profile drive-in gigs have taken shape, including Alan Jackson, who is playing two in Alabama; the Eli Young Band, which will perform in the parking lot of the new Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas; and Disco Donnie Presents is bringing  “No Parking On The Dance Floor” to Houston’s Showboat Drive-In. (See Q’s With Shawn Krauel, CEO of Orlando Amphitheater – which is hosting Disco Donnie’s “Road Rave” – on page 9). Contemporary Christian Music is represented with Awakening Event’s Drive-In Theater Tour starting June 18and running into July featuring Newsboys United (with more dates to be added). Even the parking lot outside New York’s Yankee Stadium is hosting a week of drive-in events with movies and performances, as now any parking lot has the potential to be a “drive-in.”  

Looking back at Pollstar’s database, live music performances at drive-ins were not entirely unheard of. This week’s Boxoffice Insider examines Jimmy Buffett’s 2014 performance at Ft. Worth’s Coyote Drive-In, which was simulcast to other drive-ins. 

More recently, Keith Urban’s May 14 “pop-up” drive-in supported frontline medical workers at Vanderbilt Health System at the Stardust Drive-In, 45 minutes outside Nashville, inspiring many while making big headlines. 

“We all felt alive again, all of us,” Live Nation’s Brian O’Connell told Pollstar of how it felt to put on a Keith Urban show after two and a half months. “The load-in, the sound check, the security meeting, popping doors … muscle memory. When Keith went on, the reality set in. We did it. We did our jobs. It was awesome.”