8 Drive-In Movie Theatres That Evoke the Golden Age of the Automobile
During the pandemic, the drive-in movie theater has been one of the few types of entertainment venues that have been able to stay open. Fortunately, this classic American experience has managed to survive in scattered pockets through the decades, despite technological upheavals and land development—providing an instant nostalgia trip for those who seek it out.
“I like to go early and sit there and enjoy the ambience,” says enthusiast Charles Bruss, who is working on a book about all 78 of Wisconsin’s past and present drive-ins. “I watch the sun set behind the screen tower and soak in the history of the place.”
After World War II, drive-ins flourished as part of a new lifestyle that, for many, included an automobile and a house in the suburbs (and, increasingly, a television). “Drive-ins allowed audiences to experience the new pastimes in a familiar, cheaper, and more public context,” wrote Mary Morley Cohen in her 1994 article “Forgotten Audiences in the Passion Pits: Drive-In Theatres and Changing Spectator Practices in Post-War America,” published in the academic journal Film History.
From its start, the drive-in was more welcoming than the fancy movie palaces of previous decades. Riverton, New Jersey, native Richard Hollingshead, Jr., opened the first drive-in theater in nearby Camden in 1933, promoting it as a venue where “the whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are apt to be.” To entice families, drive-ins offered playgrounds, snack bars that served full meals, and, in some cases, even bottle warmers for babies. “This highly sociable atmosphere was quite different from sitting quietly in a darkened, indoor theater,” wrote Cohen.
Drive-in popularity peaked in 1958, when there were more than 4,000 in operation. According to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association, 305 remained as of October of 2019. The movies are usually the newest releases, audio comes through the car radio instead of drive-in speakers, and snack bars are likely to have a vegetarian (or even vegan) option. Most still offer a double feature for the price of one ticket. “We’ve had three generations of families coming through here. That’s really unique,” says Susan Magocs, co-owner of the Capri Drive-In in Coldwater, Michigan. “It continues to create memories for so many people.”
On Massachusetts’ Cape Cod, the Wellfleet Drive-In carries on the early tradition of being a comprehensive entertainment center. In addition to its outdoor screen, the 1957 venue has an 18-hole mini-golf course that dates from 1961, an ice-cream bar, and a four-screen indoor movie theater. It’s one of the few drive-ins that still offer sound through traditional stereo speakers that clip onto the inside of a car window. (Sound via FM radio is also available.)
These days, movie venues must contend with the rise of Netflix and other streaming sites. But nearly a decade ago, they had to deal with another technological upheaval—the switch from film to digital distribution. To show new releases, movie theaters had to switch to digital projection systems. Unable to afford the pricey upgrade, the owners of The Mahoning Drive-In Theater in Lehighton, Pennsylvania, decided to go full-on retro and celebrate 35-millimeter film—a labor of love chronicled in the 2017 documentary At the Drive-In, available on various streaming platforms.
Today, fans travel from all over the country for its multiday movie marathons of genre and cult classics. (“Zombiefest” regularly sells out.) On-site camping is available, and the door to the projection room is always open so guests can see the original 1940s-era film projectors in action. Not far from here is the country’s oldest drive-in, Shankweiler’s Drive-In Theatre, which opened in 1934, a year after Hollingshead’s now-lost, groundbreaking venue.
Drive-in design has its own refinements, and architectural engineer Jack Vogel was expert at it, designing more than 300 across the country. For one of his family’s own venues, The Bengies Drive-In Theatre in Middle River, Maryland (1956), he designed a special curved screen that focuses light for a brighter image, with the right proportions to display the then-new Cinemascope widescreen format without cropping. The 120- by 52-foot screen is now the largest drive-in screen in the United States. The venue continues to be run by Jack’s son, D. Vogel, who has sustained a tradition of audience participation, asking people to vote for upcoming movies by flashing their headlights if they like the trailer.
The Ford-Wyoming Drive In (shown at top) in Dearborn, Michigan—where the headquarters of the Ford Motor Company are also located—is one of the country’s largest, with a roughly 1,700-car capacity. Named for its location at the intersection of Ford Road and Wyoming Avenue, this drive-in is also open year-round.
“The only time we’ve ever closed is when there was a snowstorm just before the theater opening, or in extreme cold,” says co-owner Bill Clark. Taking a cue from the movie palaces of old, the back of the original screen—which faces the road—is designed to look like an Art Deco building, with jaunty red and blue metal accents. The theater has upgraded two of its five screens with laser projectors and will be doing the same on the remaining screens soon. It offers streaming audio over Wi-Fi and broadcast audio over FM radio.
Also located in Michigan is the aforementioned Capri Drive-In Theater, which replaced its original 1964 marquee with a faithful replica after it was destroyed in a 2001 car crash. The original double-lane snack bar is still in place and does a brisk business in footlongs and garlic pickles. Last Halloween, the drive-in offered socially distanced “trunk or treating” and spotlighted best costumes on the screen during intermission—a tradition that Susan Magocs says will continue going forward.
Right along famed Route 66 in southern Missouri, the 66 Drive-In Theatre’s original 1949 neon sign continues to attract road-trippers. (Route 66 is part of the National Trust’s National Treasures program.) Tickets are often sold out of the original ticket booth, a glowing little building with walls made entirely of glass block. For the full historic experience, owner Nathan McDonald recommends staying at the recently restored Boots Court motel (1939) in the nearby town of Carthage, which advertises “A Radio in Every Room.”
It’s possible to build a whole vacation around a stay at The Spud Drive-in Theatre in Idaho’s Teton County, located about an hour’s drive from Grand Teton National Park. Operating since 1953, it beckons to guests with a giant potato sitting in “Old Murphy,” a 1946 Chevrolet flatbed truck, parked along the highway. The drive-in sign is modeled after an Idaho license plate, featuring the motto “Famous Potatoes.” A couple of years ago, owner Lenny Zaban added two rustic cabins at the back of the lot, where overnight guests can watch movies from the porch or the nearby hot tub and enjoy specialties from the snack bar, including “Spud Buds” (potato tots) and caramel corn, made fresh nightly.
Donate Today to Help Save the Places Where Our History Happened.
Support the National Trust for Historic Preservation today and you'll be providing the courage, comfort, and inspiration of historic places now, when we need it most.