Bel Air diner transformed into a drive-in

Drive in Theaters Making a Comeback in America

This past year and a half has been a telling one. Normal everyday life was boring. Not once had I ever felt like I was living the same day on repeat. That was until  the world went into lockdown. Even though shops and restaurants are starting to open back up, the past year and some are different. People needed to come up with new ways to have fun and this brought back the popularity with drive in movie theaters.

Old school movies have showcased drive-ins as a popular date spot among high schoolers, like the classic Grease. I also have some experience with drive-in movie theaters, considering I have worked at one for the past four years. I have been able to see it grow and I think this has happened all across the nation. So, if you are looking for a fun vacation, I would suggest

First, a little history

This blog post could not have been written at a better time actually. On June 6th it will be the 88th birthday of the first ever drive- in movie theater. For anyone who is unfamiliar (hard to believe), to drive-in movie theater is just how it sounds. You take your car and drive right up to the screen to watch the movie from the comfort of your own car.

The First Ever

The first of drive-in movie theaters

Drive-ins first open in Camden New Jersey. But, it did not stop there. It started as a 25 cent car charge and then 25 cents per person. It was a nice cheap experience for the whole family. The idea was patented by Richard Hollingshead, who at first called them “park-in theaters”. I’m a little happy that that name did not stick. Drive-in just seems to roll off the tongue better.

In May of that year was when he got the patent and a month later there was a cultural phenomenon. By 1949 drive in theaters were popping up all over the country. By the 50s and 60s following World War II was when they were taking the world by storm and they had become the normal hangout. There were reportedly around 5,000 theaters across America, though today there is only about 500.

The Previous Decline of Theaters

Something notable about Drive in movie theaters is that it is an American invention. These are hard to come by since America is considered a melting pot of other cultures in America. Though they were popular during the 50s and 60s, this popularity did not last long. By the 70s, they were already starting to decline.

The reason behind this sudden downfall to dive ins was due to a few things. This was the start of daylight savings time. Prior to the 70s, it had not been in practice. It became mandated in 1966 and this affects the time that movies would be able to play. Which has become an inconvenience for those who like to go to sleep early. Not only was time becoming an issue, but VHS tapes were also starting to come out. So, for a time, drive-ins had started to become obsolete.

Drive in Theaters in Quarantine

A makeshift drive in theater at the back of a church

Having an activity that is done in the safety of someone’s car makes the most sense when wanting to stay away from people. So people took advantage of this. It had started becoming an activity that people took advantage of. The restrictions of no longer having to worry about time due to the fact that a normal 9-5 commute was no longer a problem, and children did not need to get ready for school early the next morning.

Muse Magazine reports that people were making make shift drive-ins to create things to do and use some space that was not in use. They also talk about Spencer Folmar and him creating “the largest drive-in theater” which can hold about 500 cars. With that, let us go on a little tour of a few of the drive-in theaters around the United States. I’ll even talk about the one I have had the pleasure of working at since I was 17 years old. But I’ll save that for last.

Skyline Drive-in Brooklyn, NY

What sets this apart from other drive-in theaters (though I am no expert, just someone who has worked in the industry) is that it is located in the city itself. Typically, I would think of drive-ins in a field, not right by the city. This theater also opened at the height of the pandemic. Which is very admirable. Most businesses were struggling but this drive in was able to have a grand opening.

Skyline Drive in, changing the game for other theaters, a brand new theater that opened during quarantine

On June 14th 2020 was its opening and it is still open today. It seems that they play movies that have already been out previously. As of June 5th, Skyline is playing Jurassic World and the Blair Witch Project. The movies that they show change every day though, so if it’s not for you, just keep an eye on the schedule!

The name of the theater itself sounds great. And it is very fitting. Skyline is in the perfect location.You are able to watch the movie from your car and see the skyline of the city. Honestly, two views for the price of one. Its busiest time is around 7 o’clock, which makes it a great place and time to observe the sun setting over the city. This makes it even more appealing, at least to the ones who are as in love with sunsets as I am. I feel like this would be a great place to go watch a movie on a summer night. I know I will be taking advantage.

Bel Air Diner, Astoria

This diner located in Queens is a nice example of how business became cr

Bel Air diner transformed into a drive-in
Credit: newyorker

eative during the time of COVID. The Bel-Air Diner is now about 56 years old and still running. So, when indoor dining was suspended and only take was an option, they utilized their space. They had a very creative way to make the most out of a bad situation.

The parking lot allocated 40 cars that were able to park as the projector and screen were in an easy spot to show movies. Paired with the retro vibe of the diner, it was a great place to go to time travel. People were able to order food from the diner and eat it within the proximity of their car, making it the perfect place to kill some time during the week. This was a highly popular place last summer and a temporary outdoor movie theater.

A Trip to some popular Drive-In Theaters

66 Drive-in Theater, Missouri

This drive-in theater is one of the most famous theaters in the United States. Something else that is noticeable about the Route 66 drive-in is that it has stayed true to its roots for decades. It first opened in September of 1949. It was a typical drive-in theater.

The back sign of the 66 Drive-in in Missouri

There was a playground to accommodate the baby boom era, a concession for all the movie theater goodies one could want. And, of course, the 66 foot high screen. On the other side of the screen is the sign broadcasting the name of the theater. Though throughout the years the site has been renovated or changed to fit in with changing technology. For a little more than a decade, the route 66 drive-in closed and then, in 1998, opened back up and shows movies on the weekends.

Paramount Drive-in Theaters

The reason that this drive-in is plural is due to the fact that it has two screens. The paramount drive in was opened originally in 1948 during the drive-in craze. It was able to survive for many years. It was able to remain open while many other drive-ins around were starting to close. In 1992, Paramount closed it’s doors, but they did not remain closed.

Cars watching a movie at the Paramount drive-in theaters
Credit:LA Times

After renovations and a remodel by 2014, its doors were once again open for buisness. During the pandemic, the staff made sure that at every interaction with a customer (the minimal interactions) the workers wore gloves and masks at all times. So, while the pandemic helped business and got people to go, the Paramount drive-in was able to adapt nicely to the changing times.

West Wind Drive-In Theaters

The good thing about the West Wind drive-in theaters is that you can make a trip to experience all of them. In total, there are seven locations. Four are located across California, two in Nevada and one in Arizona.  This makes them the largest drive-in chain. Which has never been done. That itself is impressive.

A photo from one of the west wind drive-ins

They first opened back in 1952 and have remained open and were able to expand across the west coast. This is highly unusual, especially since they were open when drive-ins were a craze and it does not seem to have closed. Though they have been able to keep up with modern times and take on new technology to better the customer’s experience.

Southington Drive-in Theater, Conneticut

It seems that drive-ins around the country have been able to remain open for a very long time even after many theaters fell victim to the VCR craze. Southington Drive-in in CT opened in 1955. It was able to show movies for decades in the summertime. Being open May through September every year up until 2002, when they officially closed.

Even though they are technically closed right now, they still show movies on occasion. The property now belongs to the town and it is a part of the parks and recreation department. So during the summer, at least once a week, there is a viewing for well-known movies. They price per car, but if you decide to walk on and  watch the movies, only then is it per person. On some occasions when they are open, all their ticket sales go to a community group. So you really are seeing a movie for a good cause.

Four Brothers Drive-in Amenia, NY

This theater opened in 2013 and has been going strong ever since. Many upgrades have been made year after year. From a tiny snack shack, to a more upgraded version. A hotel on sight, Hotel Caravana, camping is also available for those who are traveling from far away. Also, there is a restaurant and snack shack for food and 9 hole mini golf to kill time before the movie starts.

In 2020, this drive-in was at an all-time high. Open 7 nights a week for a double feature, with no car minimums. Multiple high schools held their graduations here. The Today’s show even did a segment on it, watch here. The weekday average was 15 cars (it used to be 3). And unless the weather was bad, most weekends were sold out with 125 cars max. It seemed nobody could get enough of the Four Brothers atmosphere. For awhile, Thursdays were triple feature nights with a throwback, but now it is still a throwback with just a double feature.

Personal experience

At the age of 17 (I am now 21), I spent every summer working at this drive-in theater in Amenia. I have been able to see how it has grown over time. Not only has it grown, but every summer the drive-in itself gets even busier than last season.

Saturdays are the busiest days of the week, so if anyone was ever planning on coming, I always suggest coming early. There is so much to do on the property that it does not even feel like you are just waiting around for the movie to start. The movies change weekly, starting every Friday night and going until Thursday. For more information check out the website which is linked here.

Looking towards the future

It is evident that there has been a surge in this outdoor activity, which is going to drive-in movie theaters. So many people are getting caught up in the nostalgia of them. But what does this mean for the next few years? Will the popularity remain? Or will it be like the last time?

Drive in movie theater playing Grease with John Travolta

Maybe the popularity will subside. Due to the fact that mask restrictions are lightening up. It’s hard to tell. I can not give an exact answer if the drive-ins that opened back up will remain open like the one I work at. Or are they just temporary, like, like Bel Air diner. Or maybe this craze is just something that will happen to come in wavelengths and we will just have to wait for the next one. All in all, take advantage of there being a bit more dive-in movie theaters than usual. It’s so worth it to experience watching a movie in a different setting. Just bring bug spay.

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