This blast from the past that is just what we need right now.
They never really went away, but drive-in movie theaters have taken a back seat to mega-movie complexes for decades. Not anymore. In our current social distancing world, those mega-movie complexes sit empty. And that enticing aroma of fresh popcorn has faded away. But, for the drive-in movie theaters, things are picking up. What’s not to love about going to the movies without wearing makeup? And, if you really want to be casual, wear your PJs–no one’s going to care.
Reliving Memories and Making New Ones
Though the memories have faded, I recall going to the drive-in movie theater with my parents in the 1960s. We’d take snacks, watch the black and white movie on the big screen and strain our ears attempting to listen through the static-plagued speakers. In the 1980s I took my children who usually fell asleep in the backseat before the movie ended. Recently, as my husband and I passed the Hyde Park Drive-In Theater on Route 9W in New York’s Hudson Valley, we slowed down to see what movie was playing beneath the night sky. There’s a unique appeal to watching a movie under the stars. It sounds romantic and, of course, nostalgic, but it all started for a practical reason.
A Mom, a Car and a Comfy Seat
The first drive-in movie theater opened in a driveway in Camden, New Jersey on June 6, 1933. Known as the Park—In Theaters, the concept was the brainchild of Richard Hollingshead, a movie fan and a sales manager at his father’s company, Whiz Auto Products. Concerned for his movie-loving mom who couldn’t comfortably fit in a traditional theater seat, Hollingshead came up with the idea of an open-air theater where moviegoers watched from the comfort of their own vehicles.
A successful launch led to more popularity after World War II and into the 1950s and 60s. Drive-ins ultimately became an icon of American culture. Parents and children flocked to the theaters to add some entertainment to the family weekends. The drive-ins were particularly popular with love-struck teenagers hoping to steam up the car windows. Who could forget Danny (John Travolta) and Sandy’s (Olivia Newton-John) encounter at the drive-in movies on Grease? Their lovers spat led Danny to the theater’s swingset to sing “Sandy” with hopeless devotion!
Sadly, as popularity waned in the late 1980s, it was curtain time for the majority of drive-in movie theaters across the country. With numbers dropping from over 5,000 to fewer than 500, only a few survived. Others closed for decades and later reopened in an effort to bring back these retro icons. Going to the movie at the drive-in became a distant memory for some, and a novelty “maybe we should do that someday” idea for others.
A COVID Comeback
Who knew a global pandemic would be the catalyst for the drive-in movie theater comeback? With COVID-19 lingering around the country and social distancing becoming the norm, watching movies shoulder to shoulder has vanished—at least for now. This unprecedented pandemic brought gloom and doom to the walk-in cinemas. But, for the drive-ins, there’s a bright side. Designed for social distancing with moviegoers watching from inside their own cars or in lawn chairs just outside, there’s plenty of space for mask-free movie viewing. Currently, shows feature classics, family-friendly flicks and action-packed films. The popcorn’s popping and some theaters even serve beer and wine.
For a truly retro experience, the 66 Drive-In in Carthage, Missouri still operates along old Route 66. Maintaining much of the look and feel as it did when it opened in 1949, the rural pasture setting delivers an affordable night out with a side of nostalgia. Another oldie but goodie, the 1950s historic Super 322 in Woodland, Pennsylvania.
Established in 1959, the Greenville Drive-In has attracted locals and visitors to New York’s Northern Catskills for over six decades. Local beer, wine and specialty cocktails along with many locally made snacks and sodas elevate the concession stand offerings. Situated on 12 acres less than a two-hour drive from Manhattan, the family-owned and operated Hyde Park Drive-In lures moviegoers with its 82’ wide screen and plenty of parking space. In operation for 60 years, the theater’s attention-grabbing location on Route 9W seduced me to circle back for a closer look as we drove past on our way home recently. I’ve vowed to work a movie into the itinerary next time I’m upstate!
Walmart Joins the Drive-in Movie Movement
Don’t have a drive-in movie theater near you? No worries! Walmart transformed the parking lots of 160 of its locations around the country into drive-in movie theaters. Walmart Drive-in promises families a fun, contact-free experience viewing films curated by the Tribeca Film Festival. The line-up showcases a wide range of movies including Black Panther, The Lego Batman Movie, Beetlejuice and, of course, Cars! As a bonus, filmmakers and special guests may pop in to say hello. The movies are free, but reservations are required. Visit www.TheWalmartDriveIn.com to pick your desired date, time, and location. Reservations will open roughly four weeks before each showing.
Don’t forget the popcorn! Oh, and you might want to keep an eye on those love-struck teenagers.