The Segregated Past of Drive-In Movie Theaters (Guest Column)

For motion picture exhibitors laid low by COVID-19, the resurrection of the drive-in theater is more an exercise in desperation than nostalgia, a back-to-the-future gambit seeking to dip into the only safe-space revenue stream for theatrical cinema. Of course, catering to moviegoers encased in vehicles has the added appeal of avoiding the nightmarish protocols that theaters under roofs must abide by: socially distanced seating, masking of moviegoers, and disinfecting the premises.

Drive-ins — or, in old trade press lingo, “ozoners” — never really went away, but the venues first proliferated in the 1950s and peaked in the 1960s when the postwar baby boom and motorized suburbs nurtured the open-air alternative to the traditional “hardtops.” In 1960, around 5,000 drive-ins operated in America, compared to 13,200 conventional theaters, a market share that contributed a hefty 23 percent of annual box office gross, Variety reported at the time. Beginning in the 1970s, when multiscreen venues in malls became the theatrical norm, the popularity of the drive-in declined steadily and eventually cratered. In 2019, according to the National Association of Theatre Owners, drive-ins accounted for only 559 of the 41,072 screens in America, with a mere handful operating year-round. The upshot: many benighted souls born after say, 1990, have never watched a movie from the inside of a car or perched atop its hood.

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For a certain generation and caste — that is, mine — the drive-in instantly evokes misty memories of adolescent nights out with friends at $5 a carload (drive-in exhibitors figuring, rightly, that the money lost at the ticket booth would be made up at the concession stand). Yet the drive-in may call up a grimmer flashback for a segment of the Hollywood demographic denied access to the parking lot due to the color of their skin, still visible behind the windshield.

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The story of segregated movie houses is not a chapter in Hollywood history that many documentaries doting on the Golden Age of the Studio System have dwelled on. However, for the entire span of the classical Hollywood era, and not just in the South, Black moviegoers were denied equal access to theater space: restricted to Black only “race houses,” forbidden admission to swank motion picture palaces, or, when permitted inside the better venues, relegated to what exhibitors called “Negro balconies” or “colored balconies.” Civil rights icon John Lewis, who began six decades of activism by fighting against segregation in moviegoing no less than in dining and transportation, described these areas as “Jim Crow roosts.”

For Black customers, the means of admission into segregated space varied with venue and locality, but typically, after purchasing a ticket at a separate ticket window, Blacks would be required to walk around the theater entrance to the alleyway outside, and trudge up a fire escape to gain access to the segregated areas. (Interestingly, though I have pored through many back issues of the “Better Theaters” section of Motion Picture Herald, a specialty section in the defunct trade magazine devoted to the design of theaters, I have found no blueprint specifically designating a balcony as a segregated space — as if even the architect was ashamed to describe it that way.)

Many memoirs from Black writers growing up in the Jim Crow era have scathing memories of being sent into a segregated balcony or denied admission to a whites-only motion picture palace. In Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, John Lewis recalls being consigned to this area as a boy and being put off movies for the rest of his life. In the documentary Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll (1987), Chuck Berry stands in front of the Fox Theatre in St Louis, the venue hosting his tribute show, and recalls how his father took him there to see A Tale of Two Cities (1935) — only to be turned away at the ticket window. “It took two years to come to our theater in our neighborhood,” seethes Berry.

The postwar popularity of the drive-in presented guardians of segregation with an unexpected set of challenges. Written during the Reconstruction era, the Jim Crow legal codes forbidding interracial attendance in theaters had not anticipated the new mode of exhibition. “In many sections of the South where segregation in regular houses was strictly enforced, the rule is not applied to ozoners,” Variety noted in 1949. “Because of this, Negroes flock to the open-air theaters which are generally deluxe affairs as compared to the second rate flickeries generally available to them.”

But then drive-in operators in the South scrambled to adapt. Black motorists were either denied entry entirely or restricted to special sections in the parking lot. In response, Black-only drive-ins were constructed, sometimes even in regions where Jim Crow was not the practice. In 1949, for example, in Compton, California, the Skyline opened for business, a drive-in billed as the first “all-colored auto theater” featuring a program of, as Variety described it at the time, “white and Negro bills and other entertainment aimed primarily at the colored patron.”

In the mid- to late 1950s, when the civil rights movement started to wage its storied campaigns against segregation in restaurants and transportation, motion picture theaters also presented rich targets of opportunity. Just as the activists staged sit-ins at diners, they staged “stand-ins” at movie houses. That is, Black moviegoers stood in line at segregated theaters and politely requested a ticket at the box office window. When they were refused admission, they walked to the end of the line and repeated the process. Another tactic was for white allies to buy two tickets and then attempt to walk with their Black partners into the white section or segregated balcony, where ushers would block their entry. Exhibitors were tormented with clogged lines and interrupted shows.

At the drive-in, the desegregation campaign inspired an apt variation — a kind of “drive-in” at the drive-in. “You just drive up your car to the entrance and automatically block the way until they sell you a ticket,” explained an activist moviegoer to a local paper in May 1960. In Winston-Salem, a caravan of nine cars drove to each of the city’s three segregated drives-ins and was refused admission at each in turn. The drivers then hit reverse and started the caravan back up again.

Civil rights activists weren’t alone in seeing the drive-in as a citadel of Jim Crow culture. The open-air nature and nighttime schedule of the venues proved particularly incendiary — and inviting — to the Ku Klux Klan. In Greensboro, North Carolina, Variety reported, the KKK erected a 5-foot-high wooden cross and set it ablaze in front of a drive-in playing Island in the Sun (1957), a Caribbean melodrama starring Harry Belafonte. In Atlanta, a drive-in was forced to stop showing The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959) after a delegation of concerned citizens objected to the depiction of a post-apocalyptic world that was OK with miscegenation. 

Around 1961-62, seeing the writing on the wall, Southern theaters started to quietly integrate, especially if they were owned by national chains worried about the bad press and picket lines calling out their complicity in Jim Crow. In cooperation with local civil rights groups, many theater operators adopted a strategy for peaceful integration that had first proven successful in Nashville. Without advanced publicity, exhibitors unobtrusively admitted Blacks during low attendance matinees, then into nighttime shows on weekdays, and finally on weekends. The managers then announced that the theater had been integrated — a fait accompli completed before local Klansmen could protest. Less accommodating venues ran up against the Department of Justice of the Kennedy Administration, but not until after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were American theaters totally integrated — though, of course, local custom and municipal geography still often dictated a de facto segregation in audience composition.

Like the old motion picture palaces themselves, the vestiges of Hollywood’s segregation policies have mostly vanished, but the telltale traces are still sometimes visible in the architecture of old theaters in the South. At the gorgeously restored Fox Theatre in Atlanta, for example, several rows in the very back of the capacious balcony, set off from the rest of the balcony seats, were originally reserved for “colored patronage.” The guide may not mention this during the tour.

Thomas P. Doherty is a professor of American Studies at Brandeis University and the author of numerous books about the media and entertainment industries, the most recent of which, Little Lindy Is Kidnapped: How the Media Covered the Crime of the Century, will be published by Columbia in November.