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drive in

Drive On In

Want to catch a movie? These theaters are taking the open-air popcorn experience to a new level
Erin Brereton

For more than eight decades, drive-in theaters have allowed moviegoers to pull up, park, and watch a film—or two or three—from the comfort of their car.

Although the number of drive-ins has dwindled over the years—there were 593 in 1995 and just 321 as of 2018, according to the National Association of Theatre Owners—movie lovers across the country can still partake in the unique outdoor event.

And because drive-ins require a good amount of space, some of the best ones can be found in rural communities. Here’s a roundup of great drive-ins out here:

This relatively newer drive-in, launched by the family that owns the adjacent Four Brothers Pizza restaurant in 2013, features modern amenities like a fire pit and an electric vehicle charging station.

Carhops deliver food to guests who order online so they don’t have to get up during the movie, and patrons who’d like to stay overnight can book a camping space or a vintage airstream trailer. Visitors also can—and do—bring dogs, cats, and other pets to movies, provided they’re on a leash.

The drive-in shows double features seven nights a week from spring to fall. During the day, the concession shack, located at the end of the restaurant’s patio, opens at 11:00 a.m. That’s part of the owners’ ongoing effort to encourage locals to use the drive-in space, even during the winter.

“Drive-ins typically open at 5 or 6, a couple of hours before the movie starts,” says Four Brothers representative John Stefanopoulos. “We’re marketing ourselves as a town square. You can see people treating it as a park during the day—and when the sun goes down, they park their car, and the drive-in opens up.”

At this Southern California drive-in, movies are shown seven nights a week. In addition, guests can visit during the day on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays to check out the swap meet that’s been held on the property since the 1970s, according to Ralph Nardoni, president at DeAnza Land and Leisure Corp., which owns South Bay and several other drive-ins in California, Atlanta, and Utah.

Since opening more than 50 years ago with a single 100-foot screen, the South Bay Drive-In has added two more. Bottled water has replaced coffee as the best-selling beverage; however, despite time’s passing, the theater’s clientele, Ralph says, has remained essentially the same.

“It’s always been dates and families, because you can bring children,” he says. “If you have an infant and it cries, it doesn’t make a difference; you don’t have to dress up—there was an old saying in the ’60s: ‘Come as you are and stay in the car.’

Even though Stars & Stripes owner Ryan Smith’s grandfather ran his own drive-in, Ryan didn’t see a drive-in movie until he was 24; but he was instantly sold on the setting once he did.

“It was an incredible experience sitting in the car, eating dinner, watching under the stars, waiting for the aliens to invade,” he says. “I thought, ‘How could this have almost gone away? It has to be preserved and shared!’”

Ryan has since kept the tradition alive by opening two theaters in Texas: the original Stars & Stripes in Lubbock in 2003 and a New Braunfels location in 2015.
A playground is situated in front of the snack bar at both locations so parents can relax and still keep an eye on their children before the double feature starts.
“It’s more memorable than an indoor theater because with dinner and playing before the show, or hanging out with family and friends, you spend time together,” Ryan says. “It’s an experience you can’t get at home. There’s nothing like it.”

When John DeLeonardis’ job as a pediatrician moved him and his wife, Jude, along with their young triplets, to Southern New Jersey in 2004, the couple quickly realized there weren’t many family entertainment options in the area.

Originally looking for a parcel of land to open a skate park, they stumbled upon a vacant drive-in theater, which had been in operation from 1949 to 1987, and decided to bring it back.

The Delsea has since seen some upgrades. In addition to renovating the concessions building during the first year they owned the theater, the DeLeonardises converted to digital in 2013.

Along with hamburgers, hot dogs, and other classics, the theater serves a wide a variety of less expected fare, ranging from shrimp with brown rice to pierogies (Eastern European dumplings).

“We are [essentially] a takeout restaurant,” Jude says. “We have probably one of the broadest drive-in menus; the thought process was to please as many people as you can.”

The drive-in has hosted themed movie nights, such as a car-oriented triple feature in August when it hosts an annual classic car show. Generally, though, the Delsea screens recently released movies for roughly nine months a year.

“If it snows in March, we can’t open [for the season],” Jude says. “If we have 50-degree evenings in November, we tend to stay open.”

People can’t bring a grill or alcohol to this historic drive-in; but they can cruise in with numerous other items, including food, frisbees to toss back and forth on the lawn, and even additional seating, according to Steve A. Setser, who started working for the theater in the mid-1960s and has owned it since 1989.
“People show up with all types of things to sit on: air mattresses, recliners, inner tubes, flat-bed trucks with couches on them, hammocks,” Steve says. “We somehow keep everything in an orderly fashion and still allow people to have fun.”

In operation since 1955, the drive-in no longer uses carbon arc or xenon lamps to project movies onto its screen; patrons still wait in line, though, for its funnel cakes and deep-fried Oreos, according to Steve.

“Drive-ins are nostalgic,” he says. “We hear it all the time, from [parents] who are returning with their children, to grandparents who can’t wait to show their grandchildren the drive-in. It’s not just a movie—it’s an experience.”

Ready to visit one of these drive-ins? Visit your local Tractor Supply on the way to pick up a cooler, camping chairs, and other gear for the perfect night at the movies.
 Erin Brereton has been writing about travel, business, and other topics for magazines, newspapers, and other publications for more than 20 years.