The dying romance of the drive-in movie theater

Sandra Lawrence

written by
Sandra Lawrence

updated 28.08.2019

John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John are sitting in a red 1950s convertible under the stars. Giant ice creams march across a giant screen. A giant hot dog dances with a giant bun. He yawns, sliding a surreptitious arm around her neck. She turns away. He moves in, she slaps him and I’m hooked.

My first experience of the all-American drive-in movie was Grease, a world where teens dressed in leather and gingham drove pink Thunderbirds and watched epic romances in glorious Technicolor in the open air. Sound came from speakers clipped to the car window and hamburgers were delivered by girls on roller skates.

The first drive-in movie theater opened on June 6, 1933 in Camden, New Jersey and was an immediate hit in Depression-slumped America. A whole family could pile in the jalopy for the same price as a single cinema ticket. No car? Take the bus and sit in tip-up tin seats and share a soda from the concession stand.

By 1958 there were nearly 5000 drive-ins in America. Today there are just 336 left. The Pickwick, in Burbank, California, used for that scene in Grease, now lies under a shopping mall. In the 1980s, one drive-in closed per day across the US; in the 1990s, it was one per week. Some of my own favourite drive-ins have bitten the dust in the past ten years (I particularly mourn the glorious Mission in San Antonio, currently being redeveloped as a cultural centre, which at least makes a change from the usual supermarkets and housing projects), but it’s not all bad news. Of those 336 remaining theaters, some are brand new; others reopened by children and grandchildren of the baby-boomers who grew up with drive-ins, keen to introduce the experience to the next generation. ‘Retro’ and ‘vintage’ are still relatively small concepts in the States, but nostalgia is big.

Today’s great drive-in movie theaters

Every drive-in is different. Mainly independently-owned, they’ve escaped the stranglehold of the mega-chains and each has its own quirks. Some have sloped parking lots, so your car’s at a good angle to see the screen, and others retain the old speaker-posts as markers, though these days you tune into the soundtrack via your car radio. Some have attendants in golf buggies selling sodas and hamburgers while others have concession huts with anything from crazy golf and flea markets to games arcades and church services as extra-curricular activities.

Drive-ins are not swanky affairs. Often in the run-down parts of town, they can be dusty, rusty and tired-looking by day. As the sun goes down, though, they acquire a neon-soaked glamour straight out of Hollywood’s golden age. It is still possible to find a slice of true 50s Americana – if you’re prepared to sniff it out. Here are five great places to experience the nostalgia of a drive-in movie theater:

Shankweiler’s, Pennsylvania

For a truly vintage feel, Shankweiler’s, opened in 1934 in Orefield Pennsylvania, was America’s second drive-in. A destination for cinema-loving locals and movie history buffs the world over it is now the oldest outdoor movie theater still in use.

The Brazos Theater, Texas

The 1952 Brazos Theater, 30 miles south west of Fort Worth, Texas, comes complete with its original screen, concession stand and rather rusty seating for those who come by bus. Arrive to wafts of country music, cicadas and distant birdsong in the dusty heat of a hot Texas evening as you join the queue of ozoners waiting to grab the best positions when the box office opens.

Celebrating its sixtieth birthday this year, Benjies in Baltimore, Maryland boasts the biggest movie screen in the USA and state-of-the-art FM broadcast system for your viewing and listening pleasure. Enjoy nostalgic snacks in the classic, space-age concession shack.

Warwick Drive-In, New Jersey

Beth and Ernest Wilson run the Warwick Drive-In Beth’s father Frank bought after working at drive-ins as a windshield washer from the age of 13. The cinema, six miles from Vernon, New Jersey, was opened in 1950 and continues to serve family fare and home cooking to generations of movie-goers.

Wellfleet Drive-In, Massachusetts

If you’re desperate for the authentic, crackling, mono, in-car sound experience, head for Wellfleet Drive-In, in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, where such is public demand they have retained and renovated the original 1950s field speakers at Cape Cod’s only remaining drive-in movie theater.

7 tips for the perfect drive-in experience

Sadly, now most folk arrive by SUV or pick-up truck rather than that 1950s convertible – pick-up drivers park facing away from the screen then set up camp in the back with folding chairs, iceboxes and even barbeques. If you want to join them, here are seven tips for making the most out of your movie experience:

  • Bring a blanket or even a sleeping bag at the beginning or end of season
  • Check the cinema’s policy on bringing your own food and drink. Some sell a ‘permit,’ others don’t allow outside fare at all.
  • Insect repellent is vital
  • Allow time to find the venue; astonishingly drive-ins can remain hidden until you’re right upon them.
  • Arrive early to get a good position
  • Bring a portable radio to tune into the soundtrack if you are planning to sit outside the car
  • Turn over your motor occasionally to avoid battery-drain

Explore more of the States with the Rough Guide to the USA. Book hostels for your trip, compare flights, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Top image: J.D.S./Shutterstock

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