Nostalgia and family: double feature now playing at today’s drive-ins
One Saturday evening in August, Misty and Robert Shaffer drove up to the Huntington Drive-In Theatre from their home in Gas City and backed their pick-up truck into an open slot, front row center. As their daughters, Gabrielle, 11, and Marrah, 9, went off to the swings and playground equipment on the grassy area beneath the giant screen, the couple rolled out a sleeping bag and blankets in the truck bed, set out lawn chairs beside the tail gate and brought out plastic containers of Bugles and sweets.
Everything was ready for the double feature to roll. And while they waited for twilight and the audience participation “beep-beep” song about the Nash Rambler that precedes each show at Huntington, they reminisced about their early drive-in memories.
“We went as kids,” said Misty.
“Our parents took us to the same drive-in,” added Robert. “We probably saw each other.”
Now, years later, that hometown drive-in in Marion is gone. But Misty, 35, and Robert, 39, still enjoy movies under the stars. Huntington is one of only about two dozen drive-in theaters still open in Indiana. It’s over 30 miles from Gas City. And with a double feature, they sometimes don’t get home till 2 a.m. But Robert noted, “We love this old-time stuff. It’s just a lot more fun. Hopefully, they won’t all disappear.”
“It’s a thing of the past,” added Misty. But more than that, she noted, “It’s being outdoors with the family. They can get out and play … it’s a family outing.”
Nostalgia and family: that’s the double feature playing at today’s surviving drive-ins, and that’s what keeps the carloads coming back.
This summer marks the 75th anniversary of drive-in theaters. The first opened in Camden, N.J., in June 1933. But it wasn’t until after World War II that they really took off.
Post-war parents brought their baby-boomer broods to the outdoor movie venues where the kids could romp and make noise without bothering others. Some drive-ins even had putt-putt golf, go-carts and pony rides. Then the kids could slip into their pjs as the projectors flickered on at nightfall, and the world would unfold on a giant screen beneath the moon and the stars.
Drive-ins reached their peak in the late 1950s and ’60s when there were over 4,000 nationwide.
By the 1970s and ’80s, though, drive-ins fell victim to suburban sprawl. Land values skyrocketed. Developers came knocking. Many of the nation’s drive-ins sold out and gave way to strip malls, medical facilities and the big boxy super retail and home centers.
Others closed from lost patronage as video players and multiscreen indoor theaters with Dolby sound also reshaped the ways Americans watched TV and went to movies. Drive-ins were passé. Today, less than 400 drive-in theaters exist nationwide.
Those that have hung on cater to families and those nostalgic for simpler times. Steve Wilson, the owner of the Holiday Drive-In Theatre in Mitchell, noted the location is what probably saved that drive-in even though it sat on leased ground. “Most of the drive-ins we’ve lost were sitting on leased ground,” he noted. “We’re kind of lucky from the standpoint it sits in a corn field. If it sat anywhere else, somebody would have had it torn down.”
Wilson bought the theater in 2003. Early this year he was able to purchase the land as well.
The Holiday Drive-In, as do many, show the old vintage intermission shorts between the two features. The cartoon plugs from the 1960s promote the snack bar, and remind folks to return the speaker to the stand before leaving. Like most drive-ins, Holiday replaced the old speakers folks hung on their car door window with a low-power FM broadcast that allows movie-goers to tune in the sound on their car’s radio. The reminder to return the speaker to the post left one 20-ish Generation Y movie-goer confused. A loud shout of “What?!!” went out through the darkness. When the vintage images plugging the snack bar returned to the screen one last time, the same person yelled, “I love this place!”
As summer wanes this month, most drive-ins will begin closing for the season. Don’t let the 75th anniversary pass without taking in a night at one of Indiana’s remaining drive-ins. Take one in with the family and make some new memories. Or take one in just for memory’s sake.
If you go:
- The drive-ins featured on these two pages are located in Huntington and Mitchell. For more information, visit their sites:
- Here’s the Web site for the United Drive-In Theater Owners Association which lists curent members: http://www.uditoa.org/
- Here’s another list of drive-ins in Indiana: http://www.driveinmovie.com/IN.htm. Be sure to call ahead before making plans. Some of these have closed since the list was compiled.
- The first drive-in theater opened June 6, 1933, in Camden, N.J.
- The heyday of the drive-in theater was the late 1950s and 1960s. In 1958, there were as many as 4,063 operating across America, according to the United Drive-In Theater Owners Association. Less than 400 survive today.
- Indiana had more than 120 drive-in theaters in the 1960s. Today, according to some Internet lists, only 22 remain open in the state.
- RCA developed the iconic drive-in car speaker in 1941. Today, most drive-ins broadcast the sound over low-power FM frequencies to which movie-goers tune their car’s radio. This lets them enjoy the sound in stereo.