When the first American drive-in theater opened in Camden, New Jersey way back in 1933, it completely transformed the moviegoing experience. Over the course of a few decades, drive-ins popped up in every state, with around 4,000 in operation during the halcyon days of the '50s and '60s. For generations, they became peak Americana for moviegoers -- ground zero for car cruises, late-night double features, hickeys, and kids hiding in trunks to avoid paying admission.
Today, the drive-in theater, like soda-jerk pharmacies, sits atop the endangered list of 20th century Americana. Blame it on rising gas prices. Or the emergence of home video, land grabs, and the recent -- and expensive -- requirement for theaters to convert to digital projection. Currently, a scant 300 or so drive-ins still screen films. A few close each year. New York has the most of any state, with 28. Five states -- Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii, Louisiana, North Dakota -- no longer have any at all.
Still, the remaining drive-ins evoke wistful nostalgia in ways that few other bygone cinematic relics -- ahem, Blockbuster -- do. They're easy to romanticize, for one: kids spread out on blankets in the grass, summer air, date nights, lying on top of your car. This is what will, money permitting, likely keep the lights on at some of America’s last drive-ins long after you’ve stopped remembering what Redbox was. So, too, will the unique personalities of the best remaining venues.
“One of the biggest challenges has been that the way technology is now, the way media is now, there’s so much streaming availability,” said Lauren Summers, executive director of Hull's Drive-In Theatre in Lexington, Virginia. “So people who come have to really want to come for the experience, versus just [seeing a movie].”
That experience is what has kept things alive. Drive-ins today often play a mix of new and classic movies. Double and even triple features are common (and you still get the benefit of intermissions). Back in the day, everything was contingent on the weather, but now there are some drive-ins that are open rain or shine. Many have accessorized with extras like trivia nights, go-kart tracks, or flea markets. Concession stands -- basically what keep the lights on at these places -- have seriously upgraded the food. In areas where they thrive, these drive-ins continue to draw people beyond the Boomers seeking a time capsule to their youth.
“One thing that’s been surprising that we’ve noticed the last couple of years is the audience is a nice mix of people in their 30s, 40s, coming out and bringing their kids, but we’re also seeing a lot of younger attendees," said Ben Harroun, general manager of Harvest Moon Twin Drive-In in Gibson City, Illinois." Teenagers, younger teens... they’re kinda rediscovering the drive-in as something new.”
Despite the odds, drive-ins aren't dead. It's just harder to find. These are just a few of America's surviving outdoor theaters. Get to them while you can.