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Rise of the guerrilla drive-in

Mobile, open-air movie theaters pop up across the country.

By Amy FarnsworthStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 10, 2009

Sub Rosa’s founders Larry Clow (left) and Bryan White announce shows on short notice via the Web. Audio is played on FM radio.

Joanne Ciccarello/Staff

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Dover, N.H.

On a July evening, Larry Clow and Bryan White hang two white dropcloths from the back of a gas station in Dover, N.H., to screen the 1979 flick, "The Warriors." They prep the projector and switch on an FM transmitter as 10 cars pull into a gravel parking lot to enjoy the show. It's not unlike the first drive-in movie theater experience.

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In 1933, Richard Hollingshead Jr. projected home movies onto a screen hanging between two trees in his backyard in Camden, N.J.

Originally, it was a marketing idea he dreamed up to get people to purchase oil and other products from his family's gas station. Seventy-six years later, Mr. Hollingshead's invention is struggling to survive.

In their 1950s heyday, drive-in movie theaters around the nation reached 5,000. Today, there are 383, according to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association.

But avid movie-lovers and those who have fond memories of watching movies under the stars are trying to bring back the essence of the drive-in by doing it themselves. They're lugging projectors, FM transmitters, and even snacks in the back of their cars and screening movies at locations as diverse as the side of a Cineplex and a grain silo in the middle of a field. Call it the guerrilla drive-in. Across the United States, people are hosting screenings of cult classics and mainstream movies.

In West Chester, Pa., John Young invites people to secret screenings by preparing a scavenger hunt. As the founder of the West Chester Guerilla Drive-In, he says the only way people can find the location of the movie is by hunting down the MacGuffin – an AM transmitter broadcasting a secret code – hidden somewhere in the middle of town. His movie events usually require a bit of hiking or a sense of adventure. Think watching the 1980s horror flick "The Thing" in January snow or sitting on the top of a parking garage overlooking a city's clock tower while watching "Back to the Future." Since 2004, Mr. Young has been screening all his movies on a 16-millimeter projector housed in the sidecar of his 1977 BMW motorcycle.

In Oklahoma City, Aaron Gibson has been showing fan favorites such as "The Big Lebowski" and "Raising Arizona" on the side of a concrete warehouse adjacent to a rock climbing gym he co-owns. He founded "The Renegade Drive-In" in 2007 and before each screening shows old commercials and drive-in movie theater clips from the past.

In Santa Cruz, Calif., a group of six people, who formed the Santa Cruz Guerilla Drive-In, have screened 99 movies in 13 locations since 2002. The group projects movies underneath a bridge overlooking a river or on the side of a local Cineplex and views the shows as a way to bring community together and reclaim public space, says Wes Modes, a member of the group. "A lot of times we're showing movies in violation of the law," he adds. "We want to challenge those laws."

Watching movies under the stars goes back to 1906, when Hawaiians used to watch silent Kinescope films projected on the side of buildings, says Susan Sanders, coauthor of "The American Drive-In Movie Theatre" and "Drive-In Movie Memories."

"As soon as the projector was invented, people started trying to figure out a way to watch movies outdoors," she says. But Hollingshead "figured a way to marry the car and the movie. It was brilliant." For the past 10 years, Ms. Sanders says she's seen more people re-creating drive-in experiences in places such as museums, parks, and hotels. And as the recession has taken hold, the drive-in movie theater has experienced a rebirth of sorts, she says. "If you were going to go out for an evening, the drive-in was something that was really affordable."

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