A drive-in movie theater, that is.
I went to a motel/drive-in in Vermont a few years back. Pretty cool.
Next door, I found the Best Western Movie Manor Motel, where you can look out a big window and watch the Star’s outdoor screen … from your bed! Each room is named for a movie star. Booking a night at the motel was a no-brainer. I checked into my no-frills Mel Gibson room and crawled into bed for the feature.
According to Wheeler Winston Dixon, a film expert at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the first drive-ins appeared in 1933 in Camden, N.J. They hit their peak midcentury with about 4,000 locations, roughly one-quarter of the nation’s total movie screens. Now, he says, they account for just 1.5 percent.
“Like so many things, it belongs to the past,” Winston Dixon says. It was tough for all the theater operators to run a business dependent on weather, he notes; the fuzzy projection and tinny sound from the window speakers didn’t help.
“Today’s audiences want a huge screen, enormous chairs and surround sound,” he says. “They want a more immersive experience.”
But moviegoers who long for nostalgia and low-cost fun are in luck. A few hundred drive-ins still exist, and we’ve highlighted a few of our favorites. Remember two things: Use your parking lights when entering and exiting, and please take a moment to enjoy the stars on the ceiling.
Hull’s Drive-In Theatre, Lexington, Va.
The country’s first nonprofit, community-owned drive-in, Hull’s was purchased in 2000 by a group called Hull’s Angels after the historic theater couldn’t afford to stay open. Today, the 67-year-old pet-friendly drive-in, located 5 miles from historic Lexington, Va., presents double and triple features of current movies. Hull’s claims to have the best popcorn in town (large, $5.25). But the real draw — because they’re completely awesome — may be the funnel cake fries ($3).
Summer drive-in fun on Cape Cod begins weekend mornings at the 200-vendor flea market, and ends with first-run double features on a 100-foot screen. Built in 1957, the Wellfleet Drive-In’s snack bar menu includes drive-in staples, and the Wellfleet Dairy Bar and Grill serves burgers, pizza, soft-serve ice cream and beer/wine. Grown-ups: Stop by the beer garden. Kids: Check out the playground.
Bengies Drive-In Theatre, Baltimore
Nostalgic Bengies claims to have the largest movie theater screen in the nation, at 120 by 52 feet. The 61-year-old drive-in shows triple features, with classic cartoons, vintage trailers and clips during intermission. Drivers with registered historic vehicles get free admission on Sundays. Bengies has perhaps the most extensive menu of any drive-in, from the pulled pork sandwich ($6.75) and fried breaded mushrooms ($5.25) to caramel apples ($4.95) and fresh-baked cookies ($1.99).
Silver Moon Drive-In Theatre, Lakeland, Fla.
One of the few year-round drive-ins, Silver Moon first opened in 1948. At that time, tickets were 35 cents, and vendors sold cigarettes along with popcorn. Today, each of the theater’s two screens has a double feature seven nights a week. The snack bar sells homemade pizza, hot dogs, corn dogs, nachos, soft pretzels, popcorn, beer and large dill pickles — a Silver Moon fave. On Saturdays and Sundays, the grounds are transformed into the Swap Shop flea market.
Cumberland Drive-In, Newville, Pa.
Celebrate weekends in south-central Pennsylvania with a triple feature at the Cumberland. If you’re driving from a distance, you can reserve a vehicle space. Movies are family-friendly, and a playground keeps kids entertained until the first feature begins. Stock up on eats at the snack bar: slushies, burgers, barbecue, hot sausage and jumbo dogs. If you choose to sit outside (or don’t trust your car battery), rent a portable radio for $2.