The Lost But Not Forgotten Drive-In Movie Experience Of The Past

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If you have ever been to a drive-in theater, you know how enchanting they can be. Balmy summer air and the faint glow of the concession stand in the distance. Watching the sun dip below the horizon while waiting in eager anticipation is a staple memory in my childhood, and I’m not alone. People of all ages have found something to love about this one-of-a-kind viewing experience for generations.

Bay State Drive-in Theater, Route 6, Seekonk, Massachusetts
John Margolies Roadside America photograph archive (1972-2008), Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Kids and parents can relish the freedom of an outdoor movie. Plus, couples can enjoy a fun, romantic showing right from their front seats without worrying about bumping elbows with their neighbors. What’s not to love about drive-in theaters?

A Humble Beginning

Taking movies outside was a universal solution to several problems that came with indoor theaters, from the crowds to the less-than-family-friendly options. It all started with one complaint, however, from a patron that didn’t appreciate the seating the theater provided.

Stand-alone marquee for the Weirs drive-in movie theater in Weirs Beach, New Hampshire
Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith’s America Project in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

That patron was the mother of Richard Hollingshead, a sales manager that decided to do something about it. He figured that a movie watched from the comfort of the car was preferable to stiff theater seats and stuffy air, and it’s hard to argue. There were several advantages to an outdoor theater, so he opened the first drive-in, Park-In Theaters, Inc.

Gaining Popularity

The first drive-in theater started entertaining the public in 1933, but they began their prime in the late ‘40s. By the mid-’50s, people all over the country could park their cars and catch a film.

Fun for the Whole Family

It’s no surprise that drive-in theaters became immensely popular. There is something to watching the stars perform under the stars. Otherwise, most people did seem to find drive-in theaters a more comfortable way to view films.

Easier Family Access

Anyone who has raised a toddler knows the fiasco that ensues when going to a new destination. By only having to get the family into the car, it becomes less of a hassle. Parents were encouraged to bring their children and didn’t have to worry about disturbing other viewers for bathroom breaks, snack runs, or even smoking a cigarette.

Ticket booths and screen at a drive-in movie theater in Weirs Beach, New Hampshire
Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith’s America Project in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Less Commitment

It’s also a struggle for many children to sit through a full-length film, and even most adults get a bit squirmy after sitting still for hours. Many drive-in theaters had a playground for kids to keep distracted while their parents watched the movie. Just being able to get out and get fresh air was a luxury, allowing everyone to relax in their own way.


There is no denying that most theater seats are generally pretty uncomfortable. With little support and narrow armrests, it can be difficult to get into the right mindset for watching a movie. Watching a film from the car allowed people to spread out or cozy up with someone special.

Excellent Dining Options

The food at a drive-in wasn’t so different from the concession stands you see today, but you likely had a larger selection. Some drive-ins even had restaurants featuring a full menu. Families could indulge in hearty nachos and hot dogs or salty popcorn. Some theaters even had carhops that would bring your order to your window. Talk about first-class service.

More Privacy

As the drive-in became a popular destination for entertainment, it also became a fantastic choice for taking a date. The added isolation gave the drive-in an intimate ambiance and the facade of a private showing. Of course, couples weren’t the only ones that benefited from more seclusion. Families with children don’t have to worry about keeping quiet in their own car.

The screen and sound poles (minus their audio boxes) at the Hilltop Drive-In Theater in Chester, West Virginia, which was once one of 75 active drive-in movie theaters in the state
West Virginia Collection within the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Drive-Ins Today

Unfortunately, since their heyday in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, there has been a significant downturn in drive-in attendance. As a result, thousands of these incredible locations have ceased operations. There are only a few hundred theaters left throughout the country.

It’s hard to nail down an exact reason why drive-in theaters lost their appeal, and it is likely due to various factors.

Campus Drive-In Theater, closer view with neon, El Cajon Boulevard, San Diego, California
John Margolies Roadside America photograph archive (1972-2008), Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

For one thing, it’s nearly impossible to keep drive-in theaters open year-round in most of the United States. In winter, it is too cold to operate, and therefore impractical to keep it open. Although these theaters are not expensive to run, losing customers for six to eight months out of the year is costly. The land also became more expensive in the following decades to make room for suburbs and living space.

The good news is that there are plenty of locations where you can travel for a taste of this theater nostalgia. Supporting these businesses is the best way to ensure that this classic entertainment is available for years to come. Here are some tips if you want to try it out:

  • Get there early for your preferred seating. Since it’s not like a typical theater, where you are waiting for a given time slot, it’s best to show up before the sun goes down.
  • Wear something warm, or better yet, bring a blanket. A cuddly blanket on a cool night is perfect for a movie.
  • Remember to support the theater by buying concessions. That allows the location to continue doing business.

Fun Facts About Drive-In Theaters

  • The accordion radio that patrons could stretch through their car windows was one of the most important inventions for boosting viewership at drive-ins.
  • Because drive-in movies happen late, some theaters used to have bottle warmers that mothers could warm their baby’s bottles on for the screening. If the baby fell asleep, all the better!
  • The first drive-in had ramps adjusted for each vehicle’s optimal viewing. That way, no one’s vision was blocked by the car in front of them.
  • The very first films shown at these theaters were usually low-budget or independent films.

Final Thoughts

These magical places have brought joy to families and film lovers for generations. Watching a movie on the silver screen from the comfort of your vehicle is a surprisingly luxurious experience. You can help keep these incredible attractions alive by taking the time to visit one near you. Everyone should try it at least once in their life. And don’t forget the popcorn!

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