Editorial: Garden Drive-In’s longevity is something to celebrate
Although celebrating its 70th anniversary, the Garden Drive-In was not the nation’s first drive-in theater.
It would be, according to the Smithsonian Magazine website, the one opened in 1933 by Richard Hollingshead in Camden, NJ The “auto-bound”, as the site calls participants, paid 25 cents per car to see the British comedy “Wives Beware “, featuring the legendary Adolphe Menjou – who, despite his foreign-sounding name and debonair waxy black mustache, hailed from Pittsburgh, 1890s
The Garden isn’t the only remaining drive-in theater in Luzerne County or the area, either. The bigscreen.com website lists seven other drive-ins within 50 miles of Wilkes-Barre, including the Moonlite Drive-In in western Wyoming, which hosted the NEPA Sings contest last weekend.
The number of people remembering the boom years of drive-ins has dwindled with the number of drive-ins themselves. America’s love of seeing the stars under the stars peaked a long time ago – 1958, according to the Smithsonian, with 4,063 theaters. Economics and good old capitalist greed have helped narrow the drive. It has to be dark for drive-ins to run a movie, limiting the number of hours it plays and, by extension, paying viewers.
Indoor cinemas, on the other hand, can show a film five or six times a day. “So, to sell as many tickets as possible, movie studios sent their first runs to theaters,” the Smithsonian explains. “Drive-ins were left to show B-movies and eventually X-rated movies.”
That wasn’t the only pressure on drive-thru owners, who had to be within driving distance of population centers. So they would build on the outskirts of town, the town would grow, and the drive-in land would be more profitable sold to a developer than run as a theater which, at least north of the Mason-Dixon line, was a seasonal operation for start with.
For these reasons and more, that peak of over 4,000 drive-ins has dropped to about 10% in those glory days, with some 400 drive-ins still in operation nationwide. The fact that two of them are so close to the county seat of Luzerne is, in our opinion, a real blessing. They have reinvented themselves several times to remain viable. And keeping a few drive-ins has become a big deal during the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown and restrictions. Never underestimate the classics.
The charm of the drive-in remains, and owners, staff and customers prove it goes beyond seeing a movie in your car.
“When we started seeing people coming with their kids, and soon after you were seeing these kids bringing their kids,” current co-owner Doug Barbacci told writer Ryan Evans, “you just look at ’em and you just nod and they would nod. You realize it’s a generational thing. And when you see that it really has an impact.
“It’s become a way of life for me,” longtime manager Stephen Zelenak said. “I love it. I love drive-ins. I love everything about it. He speaks from experience, having started at the concession counter in 1992. “I want to put a bed in there so I can stay there and never leave.”
The Garden’s official 70th anniversary begins at 4 p.m. today (July 2), with a DJ, kids’ activities, bouncy house, fireworks and, of course, movies. So remember to stop there. Or just keep in mind that it’s still an option in the coming weeks. If you used to go to drive-ins, remember the special vibe. And if you’ve never experienced it, see what has kept the form alive for nearly 90 years.
— Head of times