There isn’t anything that says “summer” more than loading the old Vista Cruiser up with 10 of your sweaty pals and heading out to the drive-in. Drive-ins were in decline, but thanks to a healthy dose of nostalgia, the ones that are left are running a healthy business. We’ve got ten to check out this summer:
According to an article in the Rio Grande Republican from April 16, 1915, the Theatre de Guadalupe opened in April that year in Las Cruces, New Mexico and allowed newfangled automobiles to roll right up to the screen. “Seven hundred people may be comfortably seated in the auditorium. Automobile entrances and places for 40 or more cars within the theater grounds and in-line position to see the pictures and witness all performances on the stage is a feature of the place that will please car owners,” the article reads.
That’s the announcement for America’s very first drive-in theater. While later drive-ins would put the emphasis on cars rather than auditorium seating, it was the first time that people would be able to sit in their cars and watch a film.
Until 1933, drive-in theaters were just a flat parking lot with no thought toward how the cars were placed, so if you were in the back, you couldn’t see much. There also wasn’t a lot of consideration for sound. That changed when Richard Hollingshead, Jr. began experimenting with drive-in theater design in his driveway in Riverton, New Jersey. Hollingshead built ramps to position cars so that occupants could see the screen, and tested sound levels with speakers behind the screen. For his work, he was awarded U.S. Patent 1,909,537 for his Drive-In Theater.
The ramp positions that Hollingshead developed are pretty close to what every drive-in you’re going to visit in the modern era is still using.
Hollingshead’s first drive-in opened on June 6, 1933, in Pennsauken Township with space for 400 cars and a 40 by 50 ft screen. His slogan at the time was “The whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are.” The concept caught on around the country. The second drive-in of Hollingshead’s design was Shankweiler’s in Orefield, Pennsylvania, which opened on April 15, 1934, and it’s the first of our drive-ins to visit this summer.
Sound issues were the drive-in movie’s Achilles heel in the early days. Hollingshead’s design used giant speakers mounted on towers, but cars close by would get blasted, cars in the distance couldn’t hear, and the neighbors suddenly wished they bought houses next to the airport instead.
The Pico Drive-In Theater in Los Angeles — which opened quickly after Shankweiler’s — experimented with a row of speakers mounted in front of the cars. That localized the sound, but didn’t address the noise issues for the neighbors. According to the book Drive-In Theaters: A History From Their Inception in 1933, RCA solved the issue for decades with its in-car speakers, mounted on poles and attached to coiled cords. The speakers were sturdy and weatherproof, and drivers could put them inside the car, hung on the window. Each speaker had an individual volume control. The speakers weren’t put into widespread use until after World War II.
In the 1950s and 1960s, as youth culture exploded following WWII, and all of America took to their cars, drive-in theaters cropped up everywhere. Where standard movie theaters — with their ornate, brick and mortar structures — were too expensive to build in rural areas, the drive-in provided a viable alternative. By the early 1960s, over 4,000 drive-ins were open across the country, making up as much as a quarter of the movie business.
(Image Source: NewYorkDriveIns.com)
The largest American drive-in was located in Copiague, New York. The Johnny All-Weather Drive-In was a massive facility covering over 29 acres, that could house as many as 2,500 cars. It was accompanied by an indoor theater that could seat 1,200. Popular Science magazine showed photos of the drive-in’s “Tally Ho Train” that shuttled customers from their cars to the concession stand and the childrens’ playground.
(Image Source: NewYorkDriveIns.com)
The Johnny All-Weather operated until 1984, when it was demolished to make way for a Home Depot.
A lot of things contributed to the death of the American drive-in: home video and cable TV certainly couldn’t have helped, but the major issue was the rapidly rising value of real estate. When the owner of a drive-in was presented with the option to sell out to Lowe’s or Walmart for enough money to retire on, it couldn’t have been a tough decision.
In 2014, the remaining drive-in theaters faced a major challenge when motion picture houses made the decision to stop distributing film. It forced all of the drive-ins to invest upwards of $70,000 to convert to digital projection equipment. Honda helped raise $55,000 toward saving drive-ins with an IndieGogo campaign that year.
As of 2014, less than 10 percent of the 4,000 American drive-ins were still left. South Dakota currently has more drive-ins per person than any state, followed closely by Vermont.
It’s time for you to get out and support a drive-in near you. We’ve selected ten around the country, but we’ve also provided a link to a comprehensive list of drive-ins around the country. Fill the car, bring the kids, and enjoy a movie outdoors this summer.
4540 Shankweiler Rd.
RetroRoadmap just did a great video piece on Shankweiler’s. Open since 1934, it’s the oldest operating drive-in theater in America.
17231 Old 66 Boulevard
The 66 Drive-In is a classic open-air theater that’s been in operation since September of 1949. The theater closed in the early 1980s, but reopened and has shown movies on the weekends ever since.
Wilderness Outdoor Movie Theater
217 Old Hales Road
The Wilderness Outdoor Movie Theater claims to have the largest outdoor movie screen in existence. It’s also making it up in volume, running four movies a weekend when the weather cooperates.
Now Showing: Screen 1 features Planes: Fire & Rescue and Maleficent and Screen 2 is running Hercules and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
Wheel-In Motor Movie
210 Theater Road
Port Townsend, Washington
(Image source: CinemaTreasures.org)
The Wheel-In is not only one of the few drive-ins left in Washington, it has — by far — the coolest entryway of any drive-in in America: A western-themed admission booth with a friendly “Howdy Pardner” sign on the archway as you enter. If you live anywhere near it, visit it now.
11260 Hudson Blvd. North
Lake Elmo, Minnesota
(Image Source: ScreenwritingFromIowa.Wordpress.com)
The Vali-Hi’s got it going on with a couple of unique features: First, you can get a hot dog for a buck, which is a bargain in anybody’s book, and second, you get three movies for the price of one. Friends, that’s what you call value.
Mendon Twin Drive-In
35 Milford Street
The Mendon Twin is our local drive-in here at BestRide HQ and it’s a great one. We have a terrific local restaurant review show called The Phantom Gourmet here in the Boston area, and the family that produces the show recently purchased the Mendon Twin and placed a real emphasis on the dining experience. Yes, it’s drive-in food, but there’s a beer garden with local beers on tap where you can see movies on both screens, along with all the burgers, dogs, fries and onion rings you can handle. We drove the Dodge Challenger Hellcat there last year to see Mad Max: Fury Road and it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
3417 Eastern Boulevard
The Googie-era sign out in front of Bengie’s should be enough to lure in even the most recalcitrant movie patron. Bengie’s is celebrating its 61st year in business this year, and features the largest movie screen in the USA at 6,240 square feet. And you don’t get a double feature at Bengie’s, you get a TRIPLE feature for your hard-earned entertainment dollar.
10400 Ford Road
The Ford Drive-In claims to be the biggest in America, with a 3,000 car capacity, and considering your proximity for Ford’s most vibrant history, you’re bound to see tons of vintage Ford products any time you visit. Not only do you get in car audio, the Ford Drive-In also offers in-car heaters for those chilly, Michigan evenings.
Starlight Six Drive-In
2000 Moreland Ave. SE
With a big six digital screens, you’re almost guaranteed to find a movie you like at Atlanta’s Starlight Six. The drive-in opened in 1949, and has continuously evolved and improved to its digital-projection glory today. Every Labor Day weekend, the Starlight Six features classic B-movies and a hot rod show.
969 Portland Rd.
Oh, to be enjoying an outdoor movie with cool breezes blowing off the Maine coast. It’s a recipe for happiness. The Saco Drive-In takes old-school to the nth degree, as it was established way back in 1939, making it one of the oldest continuously operating drive-ins in America, yet it was one of the many theaters that was helped to go digital during the Honda campaign.
This is nowhere near a comprehensive list of drive-ins. There are hundreds spread across the country. Check out DriveInMovie.com for a list of drive-ins near you.