by Brett Leveridge
Spring and summer are the perfect seasons to take in a drive-in movie. Whether or not you're planning to relax in front of the big screen under the stars, enjoy a tour of famous drive-ins around the country.
Richard Hollingshead, Jr., was the man behind the invention of the "ozoner" (as drive-in buffs often refer to these open-air theatres). After experimenting with outdoor projection in his backyard, Hollingshead filed an application for a patent on the idea on August 6, 1932. The patent was granted on May 16, 1933, and just about three weeks later, Hollingshead opened the world's first drive-in movie theater in Camden, New Jersey (some say the theater was actually just across the town line in Pennsauken Township, though newspaper ads of the day placed it in Camden).
The movie shown on that historic night? Wives Beware, starring Adophe Menjou, a 1932 release that was then in its second run (its original title was Two White Arms). It's now considered a lost film, alas. Admission was 25 cents per car, and an additional 25 cents per passenger.
In the early years of drive-ins, the movie's soundtrack came from loudspeakers located under the screen or on towers nearby, but in 1941, the familiar in-car speaker was introduced by RCA. Today, few drive-ins still retain those speakers that patrons once hung from car windows; the sound is instead broadcast via an FM signal that can be picked up on one's car radio or a boombox (which many drive-ins provide to patrons for a low rental fee or, in some cases, even free of charge).
Nowadays, drive-in operators make very little money from ticket sales; the vast majority of that money goes to the movie studios. As such, they depend almost entirely on the sales of food and drinks at the concession stand. Some drive-ins have rules against bringing in outside food; others sell a food permit that allows patrons to bring their own food. In any case, moviegoers are always encouraged to patronize the concession stand—it's what keeps drive-ins going! And now, here are 10 of our favorite drive-ins, theaters we know you'll enjoy visiting...
Shankweiler's is the world's oldest drive-in. The second drive-in ever built, it opened in 1934, just a few months after Hollingshead's Drive-in Theatre debuted, and has been going strong ever since. Historical significance aside, it's a delightful theater, with a friendly, small-town vibe that will appeal to the whole family.
This thriving theater was opened as a single-screener in 1964 by John and Mary Magocs; a second screen was added in 1986, and today the Capri is still owned and operated by the Magocs family. Author and drive-in aficionado Don Sanders wrote of the Magocs, "This family really knows what a drive-in experience should be," and we think you'll agree. We especially like the striking red-and-yellow color scheme; it certainly makes the Capri hard to miss!
The Wellfleet, which opened in 1957, is the only drive-in on the scenic island of Cape Cod, but that's not all it has to recommend it. It's part of an entertainment complex that includes the Wellfleet Dairy Bar and Grill, a flea market, a playground and, best of all, a vintage 18-hole miniature golf course that was built in 1961.
For many, a night at the drive-in is an evening's journey to yesteryear (though drive-in owners will tell us their theaters have much to recommend them beyond memories of days gone by), and for those who embrace the nostalgic side of the drive-in experience, what could be better than enjoying a movie under the stars at a theatre that sits right alongside historic Route 66? The 66 Drive-in, which opened in 1949, went out of business in 1985, was renovated and reopened in 1998, and has been going strong ever since. Since 2003, it's been listed with the National Register of Historic Places.
The 99W was opened in 1953 by J.T. (Ted) Francis, whose grandson Brian Francis, currently oversees its operation. The Francis family also operates The Cameo, built in 1937, a classic indoor theatre (called "hardtops" by drive-ins buffs) in downtown Newberg. In a recent poll conducted by USA Today, the 99W was voted the nation's best drive-in.
The Starlight opened in 1949. A second screen was added in 1956, and four more screens were built in 1983, when the management also start hosting a swap meet on the lot during daylight hours. In 1999, the theater hosted its first "Drive-In Invasion," three days of live music, cool cars, on-site camping and off-beat classic movies. That event and others are now held annually, showcasing local artists, organizations, and vendors.
Hull's was founded by Sebert W. Hull in 1957; he continued to operate the theater until he passed away prior to the 1998 season. Hull's wife sold the drive-in, which remained operational in 1998 but went dark in 1999. Area drive-in fans were so eager to see the drive-in return that they formed a non-profit group called Hull’s Angels. After incorporating first as a non-profit corporation and then as a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization, they negotiated with the new owner to buy the theater and Hull's has thrived ever since as the nation's first non-profit, community-owned drive-in theater.
The Elm Road was founded in 1950 by Stephen and Mary Hreno. Their son Robert took over the theater in the 1970s, adding a second screen in 1979. 2005 saw a third screen added. Robert and his wife, Grace, are still watching over the operation of the drive-in, with an able assist from their daughter, Sheri, and three of her children—that's four generations of the Hreno family devoting themselves to this venerable theater! The Elm Road's concession stand offers an especially wide variety of offerings, including freshly made pizza, sausage and peppers sandwiches, hoagies, and fried perogies with sour cream.
The Coyote is a rarity in the world of drive-in theaters: a "new build" that is plunked right down in the middle, not on the outskirts, of town. The Coyote sits on Panther Island in the middle of the Trinity River, with beautiful views of downtown Fort Worth, and boasts a large concession stand, with an extensive menu and an outdoor seating area that can also be accessed by diners not wishing to take in a movie. It's a unique setting for an exciting drive-in that has only been in operation since 2011.
The name alone is enough to make us want to visit the Spud, but the fact that this drive-in has experienced some tough times of late tugs at our heartstrings as well (the theater nearly closed in 2011, but that crisis was averted and the Spud is still showing movies as of the summer of 2016). But the best reason to visit the Spud, which opened in 1953, is the giant potato that greets arriving patrons from the back of a 1946 Chevrolet flat-bed truck. We're not sure there's a better photo op at any of the United States' fewer-than-400 remaining drive-ins: Who could resist posing for a snapshot with a giant Idaho potato?
Drive-ins play by slightly different rules than indoor theaters, and if you've never patronized an outdoor theater before, this brief video may prove very informative. And if you're an old hand at ozoners, here's your chance to show off your knowledge.
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