The big screens on suburban, prairie and desert roadsides once beaconed families and lovers. Now they’re mostly tattered and forlorn, a reminder of America’s midcentury love affair with the open road, the automobile and the Hollywood dream factory.
Three years ago, photographer Lindsay Rickert took a 12,000-mile road trip in search of the country’s abandoned drive-in movie theaters. She spent 65 days on the road, crisscrossing America in her quest for these cultural artifacts.
“I wanted to imagine through my images what these places used to be, what they are currently and what they might be in the future,” says Rickert, a Portland, Oregon-based commercial, wedding, portrait and fine-art photographer.
When viewed through a windshield, the giant rectangular slabs look glued to the sky. Up there floating in the night sky they once reflected adventure, drama, comedy and passion but now sit dormant in Rickert’s photographs.
In this beautiful yet melancholy series, Rickert has skillfully preserved with her cameras the abandoned remnants of a simple but pragmatic architecture that’s fading fast from the American landscape. More important, she reminds us of a certain age of those summer nights of our youth.
Rickert’s book “Drive-In America” is sold out, but a full-length feature of her images can be enjoyed here.
I asked Rickert about her art and her 65 days on the road.
You photographed 28 theaters for your essay. Why not more — or fewer? And how in the world did you find these places? Are they listed in the Yellow Pages of old phone books? Did you ever sleep in your car, or roadhouses? And how many U-turns did you make on this great scavenger hunt?
The number of theaters I was able to photograph was directly related to the amount of time I was able to spend on the road. While I would have loved to try and visit them all, there are still more than 350 operational theaters and who knows how many abandoned structures left. Financially, it just wasn’t realistic for me to be able to afford to stay on the road away from my regular work and life for that long. As for finding each theater, I did nearly a year’s worth of research before hitting the road. Through a combination of Google image searches, drive-in enthusiast websites and Google Earth images, I was able to identify and narrow down a rough location for many of the abandoned theaters I was interested in visiting. While I did quite a few U-turns, it was far less than I would have imagined going into this project, but it was very much like searching for a needle in a vast haystack.
When viewed full screen on my small screen, this is a wonderful image. It wiggles between found documentary and managed staging. A skeletal screen pokes out of the overgrowth and the firefly-like raindrops freeze both time and place. The ’60s-era Pontiac Grand Prix is déjà vu all over again. Please tell us about the car, its occupants, your lighting, the weather and your experience creating this storytelling image.
When I start a project, I begin by conjuring images in my mind that I would love to create. While this series may seem documentary, I don’t consider myself a documentary photographer. Rather, I wanted to imagine through my images what these places used to be, what they are currently and what they might be in the future. This particular image was one I wanted to create from the get-go, however the logistics came together with a little hard work and a decent amount of luck. A friend knew I would be in the area and was looking for models so he connected me with a friend he had in the area. I had no idea that he would also have this amazing car to offer and that he would be so willing to drive it onto an overgrown abandoned lot. We met on the lot for the first time and as with most of my trip, a huge raincloud hung over our heads. We only had about 10 minutes to set this shot up before it started pouring, so I asked him and a friend I had traveling with me at the time to hop in the car with one of my flashes and I ran around like crazy until the rain started pouring down.
It was great to see families wrapped up in blankets in the flatbeds of their trucks of the back of their cars, enjoying a snack, kids running around having fun. Basically doing exactly what I remember when I think back to my childhood.
On Google Maps I see the Sage Crest Drive-In (main photo, top) sitting just of Highway Alt 95 between a planet-sized copper mine and a quilt of tidy green agriculture fields. You told me this is one of your favorite photos – please share that.
I think this is one of my favorites because it is the first theater I shot on the road. It was the very beginning of my trip and this theater symbolized a lot of what I had in store for me over the next 65 days. As I mentioned before, I would be battling storms most of the summer, and this theater really set the stage for that. It was pouring as we drove down the highway in search of this gem. I had a lot of nerves going just wondering what I had gotten myself into with such a huge project and really hoping I could pull it all off. Mother Nature was feeling like she had other plans, but as the drive-in appeared along the highway, the sky began to clear and this beautiful rainbow arched over the abandoned screen. At that moment, any doubts that I had vanished and I ran around like a little kid giggling and snapping my camera.
You did a lot of shooting at night – ideal for your theme. Was it spooky lugging your gear around amid the unseen snakes, mice, weasels and night people? Why did you focus on this well-worn merry-go-round at the Star-Vue?
Actually, I did quite a bit of shooting during the day but used some lighting techniques to achieve the look of night or twilight. Shooting during the day allowed us to get more travel in since I was shooting more than one theater in a day at time. I did shoot a few theaters at night, but this one in particular I shot in the middle of the day. As for the merry-go-round, I focused on this because that is one of the things I remember most about attending the drive-in as a kid. For me, it was less about the movies and more about hanging out in the playground under the big screen with all my friends. This was the only theater I visited that had any remnants of a playground. Plus, merry-go-rounds are still my favorite playground attraction.
Your slug for this photo indicates the Valle Drive-In is still open for business. Are the tarnished die-cast aluminum speakers that flop on the top edge of the car window still used? Did your walks around the parking lot of this and the many vacant theaters bring back memories of going to the movies with your folks, boyfriends or girlfriends?
The speakers at Valle Drive-In do still work! They also have the option for tuning in via your car radio, but I love that they still have this original part of the drive-in experience available. Although, as I staged the speakers on my friend’s car for a few shots, I can see why they stopped being used: I was definitely scared I would break his window with those clunky metal speakers. Walking around the parking lot and talking with others who were there to see the movies at the operational theaters brought back a flood of memories. It was great to see families wrapped up in blankets in the flatbeds of their trucks of the back of their cars, enjoying a snack, kids running around having fun. Basically doing exactly what I remember when I think back to my childhood.