Drive-In Movie Theaters: Where Nostalgia Meets Functionality

Written by
Jason Barnette
Posted on
August 8, 2016
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Written by
Jason Barnette
Posted on
August 8th, 2016
Share story

A year ago I cruised into a drive-in movie theater in northern Indiana with the best friend and her family. We set up chairs in front of our cars, powered up a portable speaker for the sound, and watched a double feature beneath a brilliant starry sky. It was a nostalgic experience for me, a functional experience for the best friend’s family, and an entertaining experience for us all.

On June 6, 1933 the first drive-in theater opened in Camden, New Jersey. Created by local auto parts sales manager Richard Hollingshead, the Park-In Theater was a grand experiment to allow people to watch movies outdoors from the comfort of their own cars. The idea caught on quickly and drive-in theaters began popping up across the country.

By the 1950’s and 60’s nearly 4,000 drive-ins had opened across the country, but by the 70’s a sharp decline began. With competition from home entertainment and a reputation of the drive-ins as “passion pits” for the sexually promiscuous exploitation films often shown, the number of visitors fell dramatically. By the late 80’s many of the once-popular drive-ins were shuttered and sold, reopening as grocery stores, nursery farms, and hardware stores.

The drive-ins that continue today still face many issues. The decision a few years ago by distributors to stop releasing films on 35mm reels and instead switch to digital hard drives was the death knell to many mom and pop drive-ins. The $100,000 digital projectors were an expensive and often prohibitive investment in these locally owned drive-ins, causing many of them to shut down. The list of closed drive-ins far outnumbers the list of those still in business. But there are a good number of drive-ins that survived the digital switch, and every once in a while a brand-new drive-in will open like the Park Place Drive-In in Marion, Virginia.

Auburn-Garrett Drive-In Theater in Garrett, IN

You won’t find speakers hanging from these posts anymore. Most drive-ins have switched over to an FM broadcast for audio, relying on your own car stereos or portable speakers. Be sure to bring extra batteries if you use portable speakers.

As a child my Friday nights during the summer meant only one thing: a trip to the local Hilland Drive-In on Lee Highway in Rural Retreat, Virginia. My brother, sister, and I would cram into the back of our small car, my parents in the front, and a smorgasbord of food and drinks in the trunk. We would often arrive early so we could pick the best spot to park, which usually meant driving around until we found the least-garbled speaker to hang on our window. We would enjoy our picnic, tuck ourselves in for the night, and enjoy the movies through our front windshield.

Ten years later I was looking for something special to do with the girlfriend for our one weekend together that month (we were both in college). I discovered the Belmont Drive-In half an hour from Charlotte, North Carolina. It was her first time to a drive-in so I pulled out all the stops: I packed my Ford Explorer with comfortable pillows and cushions, movie theater candy, and a cooler with cans of soda. When we arrived I was delighted to learn we would be treated to a triple feature that night! I parked my SUV backwards, opened the rear gate, folded down the backseats, and we enjoyed a perfectly comfortable experience watching all three movies.

My latest experience with a drive-in was a year ago today. While visiting the best friend in Ft. Wayne, Indiana I asked if her and the family would like to join me at the Auburn-Garrett Drive-In just a half hour away. I arrived a little early so I could snag the best spot, just like my dad used to do all those years ago. The grassy parking spots, central concession stand, and massive white screen were all the same. But I noticed with a pang of nostalgia that speakers no longer hung from the posts beside the parking spaces; instead, you used your car stereo or portable speakers tuned to an FM broadcast from the projector house. The old film projector had also been replaced with a brilliant digital projector, which of course provided a crystal-clear movie to enjoy.

The best friend arrived shortly thereafter. We set up our chairs and pulled out blankets we would need later, took advantage of the made-to-order burgers and hotdogs from the concession stand, and the best friend powered up a small portable speaker she held in her lap the entire evening. As we waited for the first movie of the double feature to begin I watched as a father and son tossed a football back and forth, a mother and daughter sat in their chairs reading books, and one enterprising family brought sleeping pads and bags for the kids.

Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway in Bristol, TN

A lot of drive-ins have had to diversify their business. The Twin Cities Drive-In in Bristol, Tennessee opens their gates as a campground during NASCAR race weekends at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Comparing a drive-in movie theater with a traditional indoor movie theater is like comparing baseball and football: they are both in the same industry, but the experience is very different. A week ago I went to my local Carmike Cinemas to watch a new movie. The recently renovated theater offered comfortable reclining leather chairs, air conditioning, and crisp digital surround sound. But the Auburn-Garrett Drive-In offered nature’s air conditioning with a brisk night coolness, a place for children to run and play, and a view of a million stars in the sky above.

Admission to these drive-ins is often slightly less than an indoor theater, but you also get a double and sometimes triple feature. You can bring your own foods, but I recommend buying from the concession since the food is often made-to-order and helps support the owners. Babies are allowed to cry, kids are allowed to run, adults are allowed to toss footballs back and forth. At the very least you still get to watch the same movie you would have seen indoors.

But the best case scenario is an outdoor experience you won’t soon forget and two sleepy children who had the time of their lives. It doesn’t matter if you’re going for nostalgia or your first experience, a drive-in movie theater needs to be on your list this weekend. Young, old, with a family, or going on a date, a drive-in movie theater is an experience everyone needs just once. As for me, I have been going since I was five years old, and I plan to keep going as long as they continue showing movies. Where else can I use my zero gravity camping chair to watch two new feature films beneath a starry sky?

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