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Will the endangered American drive-in fade to black?

By David Banks
CNN
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- In car-crazy America, you can pretty much drive to anything and there's a road to almost any destination. So it was inevitable that the drive-in theater was created in the United States.

Richard Hollingshead opened the first drive-in theater in New Jersey in 1933.

Moviegoers enjoy a showing of "Star Trek" at the Starlight Six Drive-in Theatres in Atlanta, Georgia.

Tastes change with the times, of course, and rising gas prices and road congestion are testing America's love of the automobile. The drive-in theater experience is changing, too, spurred in part by die-hard fans with a passion for al fresco films and also by business owners looking to cash in on nostalgia and change consumer expectations of what a drive-in is all about.

Richard Hollingshead opened the first drive-in theater in New Jersey in 1933, according to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association. Hollingshead even held a patent on the idea until the 1950s.

About the same time, Americans began to look at their cars as extensions of their own personalities, a rolling piece of real estate. What could be more natural than to take that piece of home out to the movies?

By the end of the 1950s, there were thousands of drive-in theaters, and the idea was catching fire across the globe, too. In a wide-open America, some of those theaters were events unto themselves, destinations that just happened to have outdoor screens, mega-drive-ins that accommodated hundreds of cars and included restaurants and sit-down theaters.
See and hear some of the sights and sounds of the drive-in

Most drive-in theaters, however, were like the iconic drive-in of American lore: a single screen on a lonely piece of land outside town, speakers that hung from the window, a small snack bar that doubled as the projection booth, popcorn with lots of real butter, maybe a swing set for the kids, and always a double-feature with a family friendly movie to kick off the evening.

Families with children stuffed into the back of the station wagon parked next to rowdy teens parked next to a couple with no interest in the movie at all. It was pure Americana.

Drive-in culture has seen its better days. From that peak in the 1950s, some estimate there are now fewer than 400 screens open nationwide. Moviegoers today have a taste for massive screens, bone-shaking sound systems, dozens of films to choose from at any time of day and comfy reclining chairs.
See a map of drive-in theatres across the United States »

It's also a simple question of money. If the real estate is more valuable as a home site or even a parking lot, then business is business and a drive-in will make way for something else. Cable television, digital video recorders, satellite dishes and Netflix are all competing for the same eyeballs.

The outdoor screens that remain, however, inevitably have a legion of fans, and plenty of drive-ins are in no danger of closing any time soon. Some of those devoted fans have a taste for nostalgia and remember the heyday of the drive-in. Some enjoy the freedom to enjoy a movie with a beer or two from their own cooler, maybe a cigarette and the room to spread out a little.

Still others find it a perfect family outing. They bring their own camp chairs, light citronella candles to shoo away the mosquitoes and back the family minivan up to the screen so they can blast the film soundtrack out of the stereo.

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Tastes change with the times and the moviegoing experience changes with it. Coming soon to a theater near you: 3-D films, bar service and soundproof kid rooms.

But as long as there are cars, it's a good bet there will be drive-in theaters -- because for some folks, if the destination is worth going to, it's worth driving to.

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