The drive-in theater turns 90 today! Here are some of America's most cinematic
The first drive-in theater flickered to life on June 6, 1933. That one is long gone, but here are over a dozen we can still visit and celebrate.
On June 6, 1933, 90 years ago today, the first drive-in movie theater flickered to life, in Camden, New Jersey. That’s why today is National Drive-in Movie Day.
By the summer of 1958, Americans had their choice of 4,038 cinemas under the stars. That summer proved to be the zenith. TVs, VCRs, Nintendos, Netflix: The next half-century of distractions helps explain the decline.
But drive-ins, they haven’t played their last reel, although those reels are more often than not digital files these days. In fact, the pandemic led to a resurgence, with pop-ups sprouting up to satisfy the quarantine-weary.
The United Drive-in Theatre Owners Association counts 302 drive-in theaters in the United States as of November 2022, down from 318 drive-ins as of September 2021. There are a total of 533 screens in service, the group reports.
I’m blessed to live in a state, New York, with the most drive-in theaters, at 28. Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii, Louisiana, and North Dakota have none. (No surprise about Alaska!) The remaining 44 states have at least one.
Here are some of my favorites that I’ve photographed on the road over the years:
A columnist for the New Castle News once described the sign, said to date to 1962, as “perhaps the brightest marquee this side of Las Vegas.”
It sure does leave that impression!
The theater itself opened Aug. 3, 1950 as a single screen, and it has since added two more, today brought to life by digital projection. (You tune in to a radio station to listen to the movie. Bring a portable radio if your car’s device is not an option. You can also rent one here.)
The drive-ins that survive, like the Elm Road, in the Hreno family since the first reel was played, are in it for the long haul. Drive-ins are truly labors of love, and we love them back.
Moviegoers once had their choice of drive-in theaters in Warren and Youngstown; only one other drive-in theater survives nearby, the Skyway, which I’ll swing by next time I’m out this way.
The Elm Road has a concession stand --and even a covered outdoor patio if you'd like to dine there before the show. To me, that's part of the fun -- waiting for the skies to darken and the screens to brighten. Buying concessions, by the way, is a big way to support the bottom-lines of these mom-and-pop theaters.
The great Shankweiler’s of Orefield, Pennsylvania, opened in 1934, just one year after the very first drive-in one state over, in New Jersey. It now has the privilege of being America’s oldest drive-in theater, and here’s a profile just published today in USA Today. [MAP]
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