Only in America could car culture combine with cinema and the open sky to create the iconic national pastime known as drive-in movie theaters. In its heyday during the 1950s, drive-ins numbered by the thousands across the U.S. But today there are just 357 and by next season there may be less than 100.
Industry changes demand that all drive-ins convert from 35mm film to digital by December 31. With the cost of digital conversion upwards of $75,000, and most establishments family-owned, the remaining drive-ins now face a real threat of closure.
"You don't get into drive-ins for the money, you do it for the love," said Ry Russel, owner of the Saco Drive-in in Maine, explaining that his business cannot sustain conversion fees on its own.
But help may be on the way.
Honda recently launched an awareness campaign called Project Drive-In and committed to donate five digital projectors to at-risk locations across the country that receive the most votes. The auto manufacturer is also urging Americans to donate on indiegogo.com and patronize their nearest drive-in to help raise funds for all.
"I remember going to a drive-in as a really young little girl with my parents and my brother in Colorado," said Alicia Jones, a Honda representative. "The memory still gives me warm fuzzies when I think about sitting in the back of my parents' old wood-paneled station wagon. It's not about the movie but about being with people you care about and spending some time under the stars."
If you don't live near a drive-in, taking a road trip to visit one can be a fun, affordable and nostalgia-filled adventure. Here are nine of some of the oldest establishments around the country:
|Shankweiler's Drive-In, Orefield, Pa. (1934)|
Located in Orefield, Pa., Shankweiler's is the oldest drive-in in America, continuously operating since 1934 despite sustaining major damages by Hurricane Diane in 1955. Now in its 70th season, the self-described "celestial cinema" is still family run and scooping its signature popcorn. Fortunately for them, projection and sound equipment were converted to digital this year.
|Saco Drive-in, Saco, Maine (1939)|
After growing up going to the Saco Drive-in each summer, Ry Russel decided to take over the business when it was experiencing financial issues three years ago. "At the time I didn't know [digital conversion] was a roadblock we were going to run into," said the 23-year-old. But he isn't giving up yet. "This was how my family vacationed," he said. "Even though we lived seven miles down the road, it was an escape for my sister and I. In fact, my girlfriend and I met at the drive-in on my first day of ownership. So it holds a lot of personal significance. We've got to give it all we can and exhaust every option."
|Motor Vu, Twin Falls, Idaho (1947)|
The Motor-Vu has been taking special effort to preserve itself since opening in 1947, adding enormous metal fences to protect from strong Idaho winds and installing propane heaters for year-round operation. But it's also known for plain good fun. In the early days, a small carnival operated below the screen, featuring a Carousel, merry-go-round, slides and other various rides. It remains a family-friendly destination, complete with security guards and a no-alcohol policy.
|Stateline, Elizabethton, Tenn. (1947)|
Take your pick of sound options at this 66-year-old drive-in, which still retains its original "field speakers" in addition to AM/FM radio options. Catering to a family demographic, the drive-in eschews films that are rated R, choosing instead to focus on wholesome cinematic offerings.
|Graham, Graham, Texas (1948)|
Serving a small community of 9,500, the Graham drew national attention in 1955 when one of its famous patrons, Blondie the Lion, was photographed outside the drive-in in an old automobile in the September issue of Life Magazine. "The feature story and pictures drew lots of attention for the drive-in and was perhaps one of our most publicized events," said owner Pam Scott. Still, with such a small customer base, they've had to be creative to continue operating so long. "We have sponsored Easter egg hunts, Toys for Tots events, hosted car shows, showed World Series games, given away stuffed animals, and had midnight showings all in an effort to keep our doors open as much as possible during the year."
|Sparta Drive-in, Sparta, Tenn. (1943)|
"Sparta Drive-in was built in 1943," said Tommy Brown of the Sparta Drive-in. "It is the only one in this area and it's an atmosphere that you cannot get at a walk-in theater: People laughing, talking to surrounding people, making new friends. Kids playing on the playground, making memories that will last forever. Nothing can do this like a trip to the drive-in."
|Hi-Way, Carsonville, Mich. (1948)|
Owners of this longstanding drive-in have put a lot of TLC into restoring its retro aesthetic. "It took a lot of paint, roofing, siding and elbow grease but has been well worth the effort," wrote operators on the Project Drive-In website. They also tiled the field and planted grass to make it comfortable for customers who prefer to sit among the blades.
|Ocala, Ocala, Fla. (1948)|
Recently celebrating its 65th birthday, this single-screen, family-owned and operated drive-in is run by 4th-generation theater industry vets the Watzke Family. "My grandfather started as a projectionist in 1913 and we're currently teaching my grandson to be a projectionist," said co-owner John Watzke, who found the drive-in while searching on Google. He drove two hours from his home to check it out and after spending three minutes on the property decided to restore it as a tribute to his grandfather. Because of the large size of the Ocala screen, the cost of conversion will be roughly $100,000, according to Watzke. But at $6 for adults, $3 for kids, and children under 5 watching for free, movie tickets likely won't cover it.
|Admiral Twin, Tulsa, Okla. (1951)|
Not many drive-ins get their own turn in the cinematic spotlight, but that's exactly what happened when the Admiral Twin was prominently featured in The Outsiders (1983), Francis Ford Coppola's epic tale about a group of boys caught between two warring gangs. In addition to a concession, the Admiral Twin also hosts food trucks every Thursday night through the end of August.