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The drive-in movie theater – an American Great Depression-era creation that celebrated its 87th birthday this month – is having a return-to-glory moment in the Covid-19 era.
Auto-parts salesman Richard Hollingshead debuted the concept on 6 June 1933, when he opened the world’s first drive-in theater in Camden, New Jersey. It fast became a hit. By the 1950s, the number of drive-ins had swelled to more than 4,000, some with lots for thousands of cars, and the concept had become a part of American culture.
Having peaked in the 1960s, however, they began a long, slow slide into oblivion. By the time 2020 rolled around, numbers were down to the 300s.
But now, in the summer of Covid-19, the drive-ins that do still exist in the US are more popular than ever. Beyond the nostalgia factor that everyone seems to be craving right now, the business model fits perfectly in this era of social distancing and face masks.
Existing theaters are seeing record numbers (while still enforcing social distancing mandates), and pop-up theater experiences in stadiums and parking lots from Miami to St Louis are also appearing.
Here are some top spots to catch a drive-in flick across the US this summer.
St Louis is taking the drive-in to a new level with Drive in St Louis, located on the site of the former St Louis Mills Mall. The venue is hosting drive-in movie and live concert experiences this summer in an effort to help people “get back to being social, while still social distancing.” The events, which require you to stay in your car with sound piped in through the vehicle’s radio, often combine music and a movie – on 2 July you can catch the Steve Ewing Band paired with the Blues Brothers (1980) movie. Later in the month it’s a Grateful Dead cover band followed by a screening of The Big Lebowski (1998).
Opened in 1972, the 88 Drive-in Theatre is the Denver Metro area’s last original drive-in still standing. It shows at least two features a night – recent flicks included Jumanji (1995) and Fantasy Island (2020) – using a high-end digital projector. Admission is just $9 per person (children aged 12 and under are free) and vehicles are parked by size, so you don’t have to worry about a truck blocking the view from your hatchback.
About an hour north of Denver in the college town of Fort Collins, you’ll find another OG. The Holiday Twin Drive-In has been showing movies since the 1960s and has been owned by the same family since 1979. It shows double features each night and also puts on special events.
Set on a 67-acre (27-hectare) plot in Montclair, about 45 minutes east of Los Angeles, Mission Tiki Drive-In Theatre has been in business since 1956, when it opened at a single-screen drive-in. By 1975, the Polynesian themed theater was so popular it had expanded to four screens. In 2006, it received a modern overhaul that upgraded sound systems to run through car stereos and added a state-of-the-art projection system. Today it screens two movies per night, at 8pm and 10pm. On weekends the venue also hosts the Mission Tiki Swap Meet, which draws in vendors from around Southern California selling everything from antiques to baked goods.
For a trip back in time, grab dinner first at Gino’s Pizza, which offers car-hop service featuring 1950s aluminium window trays. After that, head to Sunset Drive-In, which shows double-header movies that are family friendly nightly. Like other drive-ins around the country, Sunset is abiding by social distancing protocols by limiting the number of cars and asking patrons to stay six feet apart in line for the restrooms and concession stand.
Fans of the NFL’s Miami Dolphins can head to Hard Rock Stadium this summer, where the home field is being turned into a massive drive-in movie theater that will showcase classic Miami Dolphins content from the team’s 54-year history. The drive-in events are designed to be family friendly and the stadium floor can accommodate up to 230 cars.
Showing major blockbusters (some new, some classics) Wednesday through Saturday nights, The Spud Drive-In has been open since 1953. It’s impossible to miss the theater as its anchored by a giant potato statue. The location, not far from Yellowstone National Park (meaning it comes complete with a mountain backdrop), is also stellar, and should you wish to stay the night, there are a few cabins and vintage campers to book.
These days, drive-in movie sound is pumped in via your car’s FM radio, but before this technology existed, you’d listen via speaker poles that you parked next to. At the 69-year-old Georgetown Drive-In in Southern Indiana (roughly 20 minutes west of Louisville, Kentucky), the nostalgically inclined can still listen the old-fashioned way. It is one of the few theaters left with this technology still intact, and features two screens that focus on family-friendly movies. Tickets are just $5 per person.
The Coyote Drive-In in Fort Worth has four screens that show a mix of classic hits as double features, nightly, at 9pm. The site also has a full canteen serving everything from frito pie to chicken wings, plus beer and wine. Tickets are just $7 per person, and this drive-in is also pet friendly.