The outdoor theater used to be a staple of the American landscape.
Richard Hollingshead opened the first patented outdoor theater on June 6, 1933, in Pennsauken, New Jersey, with “Wives Beware,” a British comedy. From that humble beginning, outdoor theaters blossomed until more than 4,300 operated across the 48 states in their heyday during the 1950s.
Various elements contributed to the success of outdoor theaters. The prime one is that the outdoor theater combined a series of mythical American elements together — the film, the car, and the outdoors.
Movies had been a part of Americana for more than 30 years by the time drive-in theaters peaked. With the screwball comedies and adventure pictures of the 1930s, Americans could forget the crushing reality of the Great Depression. The war movies and noirs of the 1940s inspired audiences and reminded them of the darkness in all of us. The science fiction and Biblical epics of the 1950s unleashed new fears and old hopes. Through these decades, Americans used films to process a world that was changing faster than it previously had.
Inside these recreated, sacred, Greek-style spaces, Americans encountered archetypes and gods who reminded them of fate, destiny, justice, and tradition in an endless loop. Unlike the stage, films were eternal. The archetype captured in film was there — in that form, in that place — forever.
While drive-in theaters are not completely extinct, they are rare, with only about 400 still operating, which means most Americans cannot reach them at a reasonable driving distance. They have become an impractical summer activity for the average American.
But with a do-it-yourself outdoor theater, you can bring all the elements that gave drive-ins their power into your own backyard.
How to Do It Yourself
In the past, building your own outdoor theater would have required a serious investment — perhaps demanding a second job or mortgage. In our time, the equipment necessary to make one is relatively inexpensive. A projector can be purchased for $300; a 101” x 90” screen can be found for $90; speakers can be bought for $200. (I wouldn’t recommend a projector that has built-in speakers). For seating, you can use fold-up chairs from Walmart, an old sofa bought at a flea market (covered or brought in after use), or even a wooden pew or stools.
If you want to add some flash to the proceedings, you can invest in a popcorn popper. A nostalgic one that can make 10 cups per round is on Amazon for $129 (the 32-cup popper is $220). To make the evening more old-school, you could also make your own soda with simple kits available online. The beauty of a DIY outdoor theatre is that you can make it as elaborate or as rustic as your desires and budget demand.
Why an Outdoor Theater?
But why spend the time and the investment in making your own theatre? Sure, nothing good is in the regular cineplexes, but you can buy a 50-inch television for $200, and there are other streaming services besides Netflix and Disney Plus.
For one, it adds to the memories of summertime. Practically every house in the United States now has a TV, and 80 percent have at least one “smart TV.” Watching movies is no longer an event or a treat; it’s what we do automatically. Putting in the effort of making an outdoor theater injects magic back into the process.
And it makes us masters of our technology again. Yes, we are still going to put on a movie to entertain ourselves, but now we are contributing some sweat and dollars rather than just plopping on the sofa immediately after the dishes are done. If kids can join the process — both the building and prep work, like making the popcorn and the drinks — it makes the final result more meaningful.
Second, a DIY outdoor theater doesn’t have to be kept in the family. At a time when more and more Americans actually want to know their neighbors, a night at the theater for the neighborhood can be a bonding experience.
And if the idea is expanded — if several people on the block make their own theatres — each house can host a movie a week or a month, or different families can host different genres. Families can then decide if they want to go to the Wilsons to see “Star Wars” or walk a few houses further down where the Johnsons are showing “Big Trouble in Little China.” Some of the excitement of the movie rental store days can be brought back for children who were never able to experience it.
Third, no TV, no matter how big, can match the majesty of the big screen. Movies are made for the theater, and you have no idea how cramped they are on the small screens until you have seen a movie on both.
I have seen “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” several dozen times each. I know the beats of both films by heart. When I was able to see them at my local theater, it was a jaw-dropping experience. I could fully appreciate for the first time the Enterprise, the thrill of the 23rd century, and the danger of the Well of the Souls like I had never been able to on the small screen.
Kids can have the same experience of seeing literally larger-than-life heroes and villains and deeds splayed across the big screen. It’s the whole reason we go to the movies in the first place.