This Is the Summer of the Drive-In Theater
From longtime establishments to pop-up venues, this 20th-century attraction is providing a safe, socially distanced activity
Over 70 years ago, the polio pandemic changed day-to-day life in America. Prior to Jonas Salk’s 1955 vaccine, outbreaks led to public health officials imposing quarantine restrictions across the country. Travel and commerce ceased between strongly impacted cities, and fearful parents kept their children indoors to prevent the spread of this paralyzing disease. Additional precautions involved shutting down public venues such as pools and movie theaters. Yet one source of entertainment remained open during summer months—the drive-in movie theater.
“In the 1950s, when theaters closed, drive-ins were still available and people were trying to avoid congregating in much of the same way,” says Michael Kilgore, creator of Carload, a website on American drive-in movie theaters.
Now 20 years into the next century, COVID-19 has brought about similar public health precautions. Again, theaters have been among the closed public buildings, leaving movie-goers wondering, where is the nearest drive-in?
While the concept of showing movies outdoors goes back to silent films, the first patented drive-in movie theater was opened on June 6, 1933, in Camden, New Jersey. Following World War II, the growth in car ownership and suburban living added to the appeal of drive-in theaters as a family-friendly outing. Their popularity peaked in the 1950s and 1960s, but by the 1970s, interest in drive-ins waned as cable TV, VCRs and video store rentals were on the rise. Many theaters, Kilgore explains, folded as a result of their aging owners-managers cashing out and their land being sold for development. But some stalwarts survived the turn of the century, and are still screening films today.
According to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association, as of October 2019, there were 305 theater locations in the United States and 549 total screens. Now, adding to the mix of classic drive-ins surviving the test of time are pop-up drive-in theaters, operating in open spaces from farms to diner parking lots.
Frank Huttinger, chairman and CEO of the Deanza Land & Leisure Corporation, which operates six drive-in theaters across the country, notes that in March and April, before his company had to close most of their theaters, they were operating at full capacity. “And we were turning away customers,” he adds.
“Since then, we have reopened gradually, with limited capacity, as proscribed within COVID-19 restrictions, and remain very popular,” says Huttinger. Attendance levels at these drive-ins, which include Mission Tiki Drive-In Theatre in Montclair, California; South Bay Drive-In Theatre in San Diego; Van Buren Drive-In Theatre and Rubidoux Drive-In Theatre both in Riverside, California, was comparable to those of three previous years even though there have been no new “tentpole” releases from the major movie studios in 2020. In fact, thanks to screenings at drive-in across the country, Jurassic Park was number one in the box office last weekend, Jaws was number two, and ET the Extra Terrestrial was just a bit further down the list, ranking seventh.
“You might say that people just wanted to get out of the house, for entertainment, in a naturally safe place,” says Huttinger.
Here are a handful of drive-in theaters—traditional and pop-up—that are operating across the country this summer.
Bel Aire Diner
Bel Aire Diner, in the Astoria section of Queens, New York, has become a hot ticket by turning a parking lot into a drive-in theater. Since early May, the pop-up theater has been accommodating about 40 cars per showing. “It was a way to bring people together safely and a way to help drive business to the diner while we were basically closed,” says Kalergis Dellaportas, the diner’s general manager.
Since opening, the theater has been presenting double features of classics like The Sandlot, Dirty Dancing and Grease on a 24-foot HD screen. Tickets ($32 per car, with proceeds partly covering licensing and benefiting local charities) are sold in advance on the diner’s website, and food orders are taken on the premise through the diner’s app and website. “When we were forced to close, we had to furlough most of our staff,” says Dellaportas. “We’ve been able to hire back a lot of staff because of the drive-in.” With New York City now being in Phase 2 of reopening, he hopes to add on four more employees.
The Kanopolis Drive-In had to shut down in March to comply with a state mandate and Sedgwick County's 30-day stay at home order, but after a two-and-a-half month closure, the Kanopolis, Kansas theater reopened on June 1. Owner Josh Webb says state officials have emphasized practicing guidelines for social distancing, in maintaining a space of six feet, to which drive-in patrons have been obliging. “People don’t sit that close,” adds Webb. “It’s something that we don’t have to worry about.”
Being one of Kansas’ five drive-ins, the theater is balancing safe procedures with comfortably accommodating guests, some of whom use flip phones or pay only with cash. Tickets for weekend double feature showings can be bought onsite through an enclosed ticket window equipped with a tablet for card payments not requiring a signature, while staff strictly work in that area or concessions. “We’re kind of stuck in the middle of still offering flexibility and keeping the ticket process as safe as we can,” Webb says.
Ingersoll Auto Pop-up Drive-in Theater at Edmond Town Hall
In Newtown, Connecticut, Edmond Town Hall is known to locals for its $3 movies—a regular offering before shutting down on March 13. Starting on June 5, as a temporary alternative, the venue is holding the Ingersoll Auto Pop-up Drive-In Theater in its parking lot. With one family-friendly movie every night, the lot is capped at 42 cars. Tickets and a special offer of a large popcorn, two bottles of water and a bag of M&Ms are sold in advance through Eventbrite or the town hall’s website. Ticketholders display printed out tickets through their closed car window to enter the parking lot; theater staff deliver the snacks.
“Every other space is parked with a car and the rows are set up in a checkerboard pattern,” says operations manager Sheila E. Torres. “If customers exit their car for any reason, they must wear masks. The response has been terrific from children and their families, many of whom have never been to a drive-in theater, including the parents.”
In 2009, Josh Frank opened the Blue Starlite, a boutique drive-in movie theater with its first location in Austin, followed by another Texas location in Round Rock in February 2020 and then a five-year running, summer pop-up in Minturn, Colorado. Taking in only a small number of cars (20 cars at the Austin venue’s three screens), the drive-ins have imposed some safety procedures at their nightly showings. Attendees have to remain in their cars, and if not wearing masks, they’re required to have their windows rolled ¾ of the way up. Only pre-purchased concession packages of popcorn, candy and soda—delivered to customers when they drive in—are available. “As a drive-in movie theater, we’re in the safest position to create an experience for getting [people] out of the house,” says Frank.
Reel Big Flix
In Albuquerque, Reel Big Flix launched a mobile drive-in experience in March; its viewing locations and dates are announced on its website. “During these times I purchased a truck for my other business and thought it would be a fun idea to be able to visit with friends while socially distancing if I were to turn my truck into a mobile theater,” says owner Alec Cameron Ferguson. The current setup is a 150-inch screen attached to a flatbed truck, but Ferguson notes that future showings will incorporate a mobile screen and a FM transmitter. With its largest crowd to date being 140 cars, Ferguson says that over 500 masks have been distributed to attendees and food orders are run to vehicles to prevent large gatherings. “Our guests have been very compliant with our requests.”
Four Brothers Drive-In
In New York’s Hudson Valley, the Four Brothers Drive-In opened up in 2013, as a retro-styled drive-in theater and went digital with their screen projection a year later with its single screen showing first-run movies.
“We thought about ways that we could bring people together and create a fun and exciting atmosphere, and so we opened the drive-in,” says co-owner John Stefanopoulos. Within the 16-acre property, this drive-in, about two hours north of New York City, can accommodate up to 150 cars. They show double features seven nights a week, plus a triple feature on Thursdays.
Shut down for two months, the Four Brothers Drive-In joined other New York drive-ins in reopening on May 15, at the permission of Governor Andrew Cuomo. Once the drive-in’s gates opened, it became a place for people to safely come together for comedy shows, throwback themed parties, fundraisers and graduations.
According to Stefanopoulos, movie-goers can step out of their cars but have to maintain six feet of social distancing; on-site staff make sure restrooms are sanitized after every use. The biggest issue as of late has actually been with drive-in newbies, who might come across the issue of their car’s battery draining while watching the movie. “We noticed that car batteries were dying more frequently so now we have invested in jumper packs,” says Stefanopoulos.
Sunshine Mill Artisan Plaza & Winery
Even a winery in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge region has been offering an ongoing drive-in movie series three nights a week since late April. The Sunshine Mill Artisan Plaza & Winery in The Dalles is presenting throwback movies on Thursdays, films for older audiences on Fridays and family-friendly movies on Saturday. In a parking lot accommodating about 50 cars, each parking space is equipped with a wine barrel to serve as a table for pizza, beer and wine orders.
“We wanted to create an event where people might be able to retain a sense of ‘normalcy’ during the pandemic, and we have a giant parking lot, so I thought a drive-in seemed like a good way to do that,” says operations and general manager Natasha Skov. “We were closed for two and a half months, but during that time we were able to stay engaged with our customers through the drive-in movie experience and through virtual tastings we offer via Zoom.”
Long Drive-In Theater
Michelle and Dan Claseman operate the only drive-in left in Central Minnesota—Long Drive-In Theater, in Long Prairie, attracting visitors who come from great distances. With movie showings sometimes ending at one or two o’clock in the morning, the couple started offering overnight tent and RV camping as a courtesy to allow movie-goers to stay over and sleep until morning.
“Our drive-in has the perfect setup to offer camping as there was some unused land in the back, along the woods,” says Michelle, “that we cleared out and our entire lot is lined by trees so it makes for perfect camping areas.”
Their 2020 opening was originally scheduled to happen in early April but got pushed back seven weeks to Memorial Day weekend. “Our opening week, we required people to remain in their cars,” Michelle says. “We can now allow people to bring lawn chairs and blankets, which is how many prefer to watch the movie. We are also now allowing people to play up in the front yard, but they must maintain a six-foot distance.” They also had Plexiglass installed to separate the lobby from the concessions area; workers wear masks and use hand sanitizer in between servicing customers.
Hubb’s Farm’s Good Vibes Summer Drive-In Series
An hour east of Raleigh, Hubb’s Farm in Clinton has been putting on a “Movies on the Farm” series on Saturday nights. Scheduled through July 11, with the possibility of it running longer into the summer, the lineup has showings of Cars and Pretty Woman on deck.
“We were just trying to figure out another way that we could diversify during this time because we lost a lot of revenue during the spring,” says Tammy Peterson, who owns the farm with her husband, John Peterson. The spring season usually brings thousands of schoolchildren on field trips to the Eastern Carolina farm, but North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper’s stay-at-home order in late March resulted in the cancellation of planned visits.
Family Drive-In Theater
Opened in 1956, this Northern Virginia drive-in has reduced capacity by 50 percent, dropping from 434 cars down to 225, and adopted new technology to make for a safer movie-going experience. “When people come to the theater, they used to be able to drive up and buy a movie ticket, now it’s done online,” says owner James Kopp.
Guests can order concessions through the app, Fan Food, and collect them at a pick-up window. As the only operating theater in the D.C. area right now, Family Drive-In’s lots are pretty quick to fill up for classics like Footloose and Grease, though people are mindful of social distancing. The Stephenson, Virginia theater had opened for the season on March 13, but had to shut down under Governor Ralph Northam’s orders on March 24.
On May 1, Virginia’s drive-ins became exempt and reopened, and since then Family Drive-in Theater has brought in movie-goers coming from as far as Virginia Beach. “We will find a whole bunch of people who have come out seeking to have their first experience at the drive-in,” says Kopp. “We have people who have driven two to three hours to get here.”