American popular culture in the 1950s was a dizzying
morass of Cold War jitters, Sputnik and Elvis. The Beat poets were
gaining fringe appeal, magic buses were launched and there were
stirrings of a counterculture. While Communist witch hunts declined
as the decade wore on, one aspect of the culture had reached its
commercial apogee. By 1958 there were an astounding 5,000 drive-in
movie theaters operating in America—enough to cause the closure
of some indoor movie palaces. There would never be more parking
(er, necking) spaces, more programming options or more opulent facilities
for the movie motorist.
Imagine, for instance, the late, great All-Weather
Drive-In in Copiague, NY: The All-Weather had parking spaces for
2,500 cars, plus a panoramic, 1,200-seat indoor viewing area that
was both heated and air-conditioned. There was a playground (with
pony rides), a cafeteria and a full-service restaurant, all aligned
on 28 sprawling acres. A shuttle tram puttered between the rows,
ferrying weary viewers back from the snack bar.
The colossal All-Weather was not alone. Long Beach,
CA, Mellville, NY and Newark, NJ all supported drive-ins with a
capacity beyond 2,000. And, as the industry matured, owners fought
the saturation issue with all sorts of gimmicks. Theater amenities
included swimming pools, petting zoos and mini-golf courses. One
drive-in near Chicago offered engine service, and car-hops served
patrons in Greensboro, NC. New Jersey, the state credited with the
invention of the drive-in, also pioneered the first fly-in theater,
at Asbury Park. (The owner, an aviation buff, built a conventional
drive-in alongside an airstrip.)
There are, sadly, no more fly-in theaters in North
America. There are no more theater motels (like the one in Brattleboro,
VT), no Autoscope Drive-Ins, (like the one in Albuquerque, NM that
featured individual screens for each parking space). Urban sprawl,
cable television and home video all helped send the industry into
an extinction spiral. The facilities that did survive were often
reborn as flea markets, or as venues for “autovangelism.”
|Top to bottom: The Century Las Vegas 6, Rubidoux,
66 Drive-In, Bay Drive-In and Bengies are just a few of the
theaters bringing the drive-in “experience” to a whole new generation.
Most of the best and biggest are gone. But recently
the nostalgia of Baby Boomers and the tenacity of a handful of theater
owners has sparked a kind of drive-in resurgence. After years of
attrition, the number of operating drive-ins has begun to grow in
fits and starts. The industry has a trade association, The United
Drive-In Theatre Owners Association, based in Germantown, MD. There
are dozens of nostalgia Websites and even a fan club (driveintheatre.org),
run by Mark and Kim Bialek, of Baltimore, MD.
Die-hard patrons (who call themselves “ozoners”) not
only go to drive-ins, they collect drive-in memorabilia: lobby cards,
concession equipment and even those intermission screen trailers
that enticed appetites. While the days of car-hops and mechanics
are gone, some operators still strive to recapture the glory days,
ensuring that a whole new generation of movie buffs can enjoy their
first drive-in kiss.
Most viewers will be pleased to find that programming
has gone mainstream. An industry once predicated on B-movie schlock
now presents the same first-run fare as the local octoplex. (My
hometown drive-in, in Owatonna, MN, favored soft-core stewardess
and cheerleader movies. The manager, however, imposed a kind of
intermittent censorship with the focus ring on the projector. My
all-time favorite drive-in film was The Man with Two Heads,
a sci-fi howler in which Ray Milland’s head was fused onto Rosey
Grier’s body—or vice-versa. It was a civil rights allegory that
haunts me to this day.)
According to Preston Henn, who operates the Thunderbird,
America’s largest drive-in, near Ft. Lauderdale, FL, “The drive-in
movie business is as good as it’s ever been, as long as managers
offer first-run movie programming that is competitively priced.”
Although the days of pools and ponies are mostly
gone, families still drive the drive-in dollar. For parents squeezed
by babysitter inflation, drive-in theaters offer a comparatively
cheap, self-contained evening. The only problem is—where do you
find one? You could start with the following list, which features
10 great, fully functional drive-ins that are historic, distinctive—or
just plain huge!
Though not the biggest or most stylish of facilities, Shankweiler’s
opened on April 15, 1934, which makes it the oldest continuously-operating
drive-in theater in the world. Formerly Shankweiler’s Auto Park,
the theater began operations by projecting films onto a bed sheet
hung between poles. Shankweiler’s has survived every fad and fluctuation
in the business, plus near annihilation by a hurricane in 1955.
Thunderbird Drive-In Theatre
Ft. Lauderdale, FL
Believe it or not, Preston Henn’s monster facility—with 13 screens
and space for more than 3,000 cars—functions as a sideshow attraction
to the real cash cow: an 180,000 square-foot swap shop. Drive-ins
have doubled as flea markets for years, but this is one on steroids,
featuring 800 vendors sprawled over 88 acres, an impromptu city
that claims to be Florida’s second most popular tourist destination.
(Who needs Mickey, when you can buy athletic socks, three-pair-for-two-dollars?)
The Bay Drive-In Theatre
Alexandria Bay, NY
Like Bengie’s, this rural delight gets kudos for both facility and
programming. The Bay Drive-In is the reincarnation of an older theater
located “in the heart of the Thousand Islands.” It was extensively
remodeled after wind damage in 1995—just in time to play Twister
in 1996. The refurbishment included a second screen, 200 more spaces
for cars and a 60-seat indoor seating area.
The Ford-Wyoming Theatre
The perfect auto-friendly facility in an auto-building town: the
Ford-Wyoming, which dates back to 1951, has nine screens (among
them is the original, art-deco screen tower) and a 3,000-car capacity.
Unlike most of its Yankee brethren, the Ford is open year-round,
thanks to in-car heaters. Wednesdays and Thursdays are bargain nights
and, of course, every night is nostalgia night.
Like Mr. Shankweiler, William Beck was an early drive-in pioneer
who began showing silent films for patrons on benches. Second-generation
owner Cindy Deppe (with help from brothers Darrel and Dennis Beck)
lends a slice of showmanship to the screenings. Special promotions
at Becky’s have included hayrides, fireworks and employees dressed
like the Men in Black. A screening of The Legend of Sleepy
Hollow was even disrupted by a galloping headless horseman!
Becky’s has hosted an Austin Powers lookalike contest, and each
year on June 6th, management celebrates the inventor of drive-ins
with Richard M. Hollingshead Night. Yeah, baby!
|Left to Right: Becky’s (formerly
known as the Route 45) founder William Beck frequently manned
the ticket booth for more than a quarter century; the Silver
Lake Twin gets some help from Darth Vader; Shankweiler’s gets
ready for a show.
The Rubidoux Drive-In
This three-screen theater has lots of classic “curb appeal”—great
screentower and landscaping, and a street marquee right out of Frank
Lloyd Wright. The facility hosts a swap meet on weekdays, but come
sunset, its all movie business—first-run double features on every
A class act in nearly every category—design, programming and ambience—this
47-year-old gem was designed by Jack K. Vogel, widely regarded as
the Frank Lloyd Wright of drive-in theaters. The theater always
plays triple features on weekend nights, interspersed with vintage
trailers and Filmack clips (the company that brought the classic
‘Let’s all go to the lobby’ bits and more), plus dusk-til-dawn features
on Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends. Bengie’s also boasts the
biggest screen on the East Coast (52 x 120), with a 460-foot “throw”
from aperture to screen that means no cropping of the film image.
In addition to traditional fare, the concession serves fresh-baked
cookies, shrimp rolls and honey-stung fried chicken.
Century Las Vegas 6 Drive-In
North Las Vegas, NV
Located at the remnant edges of Glitter Gulch, this desert flower
can park an entire Shriner convention and still have room for the
locals. And since Vegas is such an all-hours town, the first feature
repeats after the second.
The 66 Drive-In
No memorable drive-in list would be complete without an homage to
Route 66. Carthage, a suburb of Joplin, MO, was a popular weigh
station for the Joads and the Martin Milners of the world. The 66
features a wonderful deco street marquee; the rest of the facility
was remodeled in 1998.
The Silver Lake Twin Drive-In
This self-contained amusement park began life as a single screen
in a cow pasture. The Stefanon family has since added a roadhouse-style
restaurant (the Charcoal Corral), a pizza parlor, a bandstand (Wednesday
is karaoke night), a video arcade, 18 holes of miniature golf and
a second screen.