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The Return of the Drive-in Movie Theater


The Return of the Drive-in Movie Theater

As social distancing becomes the norm, one piece of Lost Americana is looking at a making a return. Sadly it may may not last.

The old Frontier Drive-in theater just south of Center, Colorado. While unconfirmed, it was mentioned to me that the theater may be getting a second life as an RV park. Photo by Vincent David Johnson.

As 2020 rolls on in the middle of a global pandemic, few normal ways of modern life aren’t being up-ended. So what a twist that a way of being entertained from a bygone era is possibly making a comeback this summer.

The drive-in movie theater never really went away. There is a dedicated love for those establishments that are still around, but I think I can safely say without much research the number of new drive-ins built (not reopened) in the last 20 years is probably low if not nonexistent.

Yet with generous spacing between patrons and the fact you’re breathing fresh, not recycled air, the drive-in has become almost the perfect place for a pandemic stricken country to enjoy the silver screen.

The 61 Drive-in Theater, just outside of Maquoketa, in rural Iowa, not far from the Quad-cities, is still open and showing double features which we enjoyed last summer (2019). Photo by Vincent David Johnson.

Will this comeback last?

There are many reasons why drive-ins started to disappear, but obviously money was the biggest issue. As indoor theaters converted to a revenue model that revolved more around selling concessions, and paying for the films became more costly, drive-ins got squeezed out in many markets. Throw in the fact that many were seasonal operations that could have maybe one or two shows a night and had to wait for the sun to set and you don’t have to be a Wall Street wiz to figure those numbers are tight.

Many have adapted, however that list grows smaller each year. From showing a double feature and running movies that have been out over a few week, to having theme nights and pre-film events. But will this pandemic create a resurgence and new found love for the drive-in? That remains to be seen.

And article last month from the Washington Post talked about how one drive-in Virginia has already sold out of all all its Friday & Saturday shows for the upcoming weekend. Meanwhile other Drive-ins still need to wait to reopen, like McHenry Drive-in in Illinois.

Will this last?

It’s no secret that drive-ins are usually found in more rural places, or at least places that use to be rural. Chicago for example has just one remaining drive-in, McHenry Drive-in. As Cascade in West Chicago closed at the end of the 2019 season. Both are in what are now suburban areas, but are closer to farm fields than Wrigley Field. Land costs are a big factor. While that cost may not weigh on the bills a long standing drive-in has, the thought that selling could bring a business owner a windfall, and also the idea of buying or opening your own becomes super cost prohibitive.

As an example a recent property listing for the former Bel-Air Drive-in in Walkertown, NC is listed at $1.2 million.

Here’s the link if you want to put an offer in on this drive-in.

Go while you can.

As with every little bit of Lost Americana I share comes the reminder that these things will only be around as long as we show they matter. I don’t want to be the person who calls out your particular vice, or spending habits, but I think we can all come up with a few hours away from binging a streaming service and a few dollars away from the chain retail, or fast food storesx and use those to experience a little piece of Americana with our family, or friends.

Also Canadians & Australians can get in on the action too. Find a drive-in in your area here.

The abandoned Pineview drive-in theater just northeast of Long Pine, Nebraska in Brown County. Now more cattle graze, than people gaze at the screen here. Photo by Vincent David Johnson.
Vincent D. Johnson (left) is the man behind the lens and the stories of Lost Americana. He can be seen here at the 61 Drive-in in Iowa, with his sons who enjoyed their first ever drive-in here.