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And how they’re making a comeback

Quick Notes:

  • The first drive-in movie theater opened in 1933.

  • Drive-in movies became an icon of American pop culture.

  • Drive-ins have made a comeback in recent years and they’re continuing to grow in popularity.

From the 1930s to the 1970s, drive-in movie theaters were popular hangout spots for teenagers and young couples. It was a fun pastime, and it allowed film enthusiasts to watch the latest movies.

But for the longest time, drive-in movie theaters disappeared. What happened to them and where are they now? Several communities have decided to bring back the trend, and we couldn’t be more thankful. It’s time to time travel back to the good old days.

The very beginning

On June 6, 1933, motorists and film enthusiasts parked their cars at Park-In Theaters, the first-ever drive-in movie theater, in Camden, New Jersey. Movie fan and sales manager Richard Hollingshead noticed his mother found it difficult for her to sit comfortably in indoor movie theater seats. With this in mind, he decided to experiment in the driveway of his home with projectors, sound techniques, a movie screen, and placing a radio behind the screen for sound.

Cpl. Ali Azimi/U.S. Marine Corps

Less than a month after receiving a patent, Hollingshead charged 25 cents per car and 25 cents per person for the first-ever drive-in movie theater at Park-In Theaters, Inc. The idea quickly caught on and drive-in theaters began opening across the country.

Fascination with drive-in movies

Managers had their choice of what they could feature at their drive-in theaters. Most of them showed B-movies, a low-budget commercial motion picture that wasn’t a blockbuster hit. However, some theaters featured the same movies played in regular, indoor movie theaters.

Drive-in movie theaters were advertised as a place where “the whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are.”

The popularity of drive-in movie theaters grew after World War II. Teenagers, young couples, and families drove to the theaters on the weekend to watch a fun movie together. Drive-ins became an icon of American culture, and they were popular hangout spots for couples who wanted some privacy.

However, during the 1970s, people started downsizing their vehicles due to the oil crisis to save money on the inflated cost of gasoline. Smaller cars made it uncomfortable to sit in a drive-in movie theater for a long period of time. Overtime, drive-ins lost their pop-culture appeal and were closed. Owners had to sell their land to build malls and other entertainment complexes. But do any drive-in movie theaters still exist today?

Making a comeback

In 2019, it is often on someone’s bucket list to visit a drive-in movie theater. They’re an important part of American pop-culture history, and they remind people of the “good old days.” However, there aren’t too many drive-ins still in operation today. In fact, there are fewer than 300 drive-ins across the United States.

Ohio, New York, and Pennsylvania have the most drive-ins in operation. Modern drive-ins feature older, vintage films, as well as current movies. Similar to the drive-ins from the 1950s, the businesses sell refreshments, including popcorn, candy, and soda pop (because you can’t go to a drive-in without drinking a soda pop).

“The concept is just still really cool…you can spread out your blanket and chairs and take in a movie under the stars,” said Brent Barnhart, who re-opened a drive-in movie theater in Terre Haute, Indiana.

The Moon-Lite Drive-In Theater replaced the original site of the North Drive-In, which unfortunately closed in 1988. Since then, the land had been vacant. Barnhart, who grew up in Terre Haute, owns three movie theaters (including a drive-in) in Bloomington, IN. He knew residents of Terre Haute missed the old drive-in, so he decided to re-open it.

“I’d drive by that screen and think, ‘What if?’,” Barnhart said. He realized the potential and how people love revisiting nostalgic adventures. “They’re a destination, an experience, a place to bring your children and grandchildren.”

Don’t be surprised if you see more drive-in movie theaters pop up near you. They’re making a comeback, and it’s about time.

A deeper dive – Related reading from the 101:

Learn about the very first movie ever made that sparked an entire entertainment industry.

‘Grease’ is a popular vintage film and it features drive-in movies. Learn behind-the-scenes facts that might change your opinion on the iconic musical.