10 Classic Drive-In Theaters Worth the Detour

A sign for a drive-in movie
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An aging dinosaur, the drive-in movie theater is celebrating its 80th anniversary this year. And though 2012 was tough for many family-owned drive-ins due to the switch to digital projection, many of the surviving 400 or so drive-ins emerged from the conversion more popular than ever.

To celebrate the milestone year, we’ve rounded up 10 classic drive-ins from across the country that has persevered, most having been in continuous operation for well over 50 years.

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Elm Road Triple Drive-In Theatre, Warren, Ohio

Jack W. Pearce/Flickr.

The marquee alone earns Ohio’s Elm Road Triple Drive-In a spot on the list. Really, just look at it ... it’s a thing of beauty.

Family-owned since its opening day in 1950, the Elm Road Drive-In started out as a single-screener, with two additional screens being added in 1979 and 2005. Other than that, it’s a pretty straightforward seasonal operation with the standard rules and regulations employed by most drive-ins (no sitting on the roofs of cars, no screen switching, no booze, no overtly obnoxious behavior, etc.) and speaker poles still fully intact.

Bringing in your own comestibles tacks on an extra $5 for a food permit on top of the $8 ($4 for kids) admission charge, but with the option to feast on fried pickles, perogies with sour cream, apple dumplings and hand-dipped ice cream, packing a picnic basket doesn’t seem entirely necessary.

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The Bengies Drive-In Theatre, Baltimore

Ted Simpson/Flickr.

Ahhh — The Bengies: A super-classic drive-in theater where “enjoy” meets “obey.”

While the exhaustive list of “strictly enforced” house rules may intimidate some patrons, a little courtesy and common sense (and no booze, shoeless-ness or blue language!) will provide for a lovely evening at this 58-year-old Charm City institution with room for 750 (appropriately parked) cars. To be fair, many drive-ins rely heavily, if not completely, on concession stand sales to stay in business.

At 52 feet high and 120 feet wide, The Bengies Drive-In Theatre (allegedly) boasts the biggest continuously operating theater screen in the U.S. while the snack bar serves up fare that you’d be hard pressed to find at your local cineplex: fried breaded mushrooms, whole pickles, birch beer, meatball subs, shrimp rolls, hot soup (!?) and sno-balls with marshmallow (sorry, no lake trout).

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Ford-Wyoming Drive-In, Dearborn, Mich.

Jason Tester Guerrilla Futures/Flickr.

This super-authentic Midwestern survivor, with in-car heaters and old-school speaker boxes if you like, proudly claims bragging rights as being the largest drive-in movie theater in the world. Yes, world.

Opened for business in the Ford Motor Co.'s home of Dearborn during the golden age of passion pits when there were more than 100 drive-ins scattered across Michigan, it should be made clear that the Ford-Wyoming isn’t considered the largest drive-in due to its five screens, but because of terms of overall car capacity — the property can hold a whopping 3,000 of them. There’s no need to worry about getting the boot for getting caught with snacks, as outside food is permitted. And if you’re too sleepy to stick around for the second feature, it’s worth sticking around for the mind-blowing intermission reel, which, as far as we know, survived the conversion to digital.

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Hyde Park Drive-in Theater, Hyde Park, N.Y.

Michele Lee Amundsen/Flickr.

While it boasts only a single screen of nothing-to-write-home-about size, what the Hyde Park Drive-in Theater has going for it is primo location.

Situated in the Hudson Valley — about a two-hour drive from Midtown Manhattan, door to screen — this frozen-in-time Dutchess County operation opened for business in 1949 and remains one of the closest drive-in theaters to New York City. This dog-friendly establishment is located a stone’s throw from two famous pieces of National Park Service-maintained real estate: Right across the street is Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Springwood estate (Roosevelt’s mug graces the drive-in marquee), while five minutes up the road is the 211-acre Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site.

In terms of nearby non-Gilded Age properties, we should mention that a Dairy Queen is next door. However, a pre-show visit may not be necessary given the bounty of greasy/salty/sticky grub for sale at the drive-in’s most excellent snack bar.

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Rubidoux Drive-In Theatre, Riverside, Calif.

Jon A./Flickr.

You’d think that Southern California would be positively lousy with drive-in theaters considering the temperate weather and the almighty presence of “the business.” But like the rest of the country, even Los Angeles and environs began to see a steep decline in drive-ins starting in the '70s. One surviving standout is the Rubidoux in Riverside, a landmark tri-screen gem built in 1948 that’s been lovingly renovated and preserved to maintain its myriad art-deco charms.

The '50s-era petting zoo and miniature railroad, however, have been replaced with decidedly more modern features such as FM broadcast and digital projection. Open 365 days a year and charging only $7 a head, the Rubidoux is A-OK with outside refreshments, but why bother when the snack bar serves up some seriously tasty — and authentic — Mexican food?

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Delsea Drive-In Theatre, Vineland, N.J.

Delsea Drive-In /Facebook.

It’s sad to say that New Jersey, ancestral home of the drive-in movie theater (Richard M. Hollingshead Jr.’s Automobile Movie Theatre in Pennsauken opened in June 1933), now has only one. Thank goodness it’s a doozy.

Built in 1949, the double-screen Delsea Drive-In entered an extended period of vandalism-heavy hibernation starting in 1987 before reopening in 2004 under decidedly more calorie-conscious, family-friendly management: Movie selections are rarely R-rated, and in addition to a vast menu of heartburn staples like onion rings and chili cheese fries, the Delsea also offers nontraditional fare such as edamame with sea salt and whole wheat wraps.

In 2010, the Delsea’s pediatrician savior/owner, Dr. John DeLeonardis, was granted permission to install a 50-kW solar array to help power the theater, a first for any drive-in. “I wanted to, kind of, go green. For New Jersey's only drive-in, it's a good thing,” explained DeLeonardis to The Daily Journal.

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Starlight Six Drive-In, Atlanta

Photo: Michael Dougherty/Flickr.

In the sprawl-beast known as Atlanta, the six-screen Starlight Six Drive-In rules supreme when it comes to car-bound entertainment. And $7 for a double feature ... you really can’t beat that (provided you’re able to stay awake).

If the 64-year-old establishment — Atlanta's only surviving drive-in — had one star attraction aside from the screens themselves, it would be the nonexistent outside food and beverage policy. Sure, there’s a King of Pops-stocked snack bar on the premises, but patrons have the option to bring even portable grills (yep, you can grill prior to the start of the first feature).

Open year-round and home to a swap meet on weekend afternoons, the Starlight also hosts special events including the Drive Invasion, an annual Labor Day hootenanny that pairs live music and hot rods with the finest B-movies and genre films (and mullets) known to mankind.

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Shankweiler’s Drive-In, Orefield, Pa.

Jeff Cushner/Flickr.

Located on Route 309 about 90 minutes northwest of Philly near Allentown, Shankweiler’s was the second drive-in theatre built in the United States (1934). And since the first, the Automobile Movie Theatre outside of Camden, N.J., went to ozoner heaven many moons ago, Shankweiler’s maintains the title of oldest continuously operating drive-in theatre in the country (it also became the first to offer audio in FM broadcast stereo in 1986).

Given the endangered status of drive-in theaters, the fact that Shankweiler’s has been in business for 80 straight years is an impressive survival story on its own. Even more impressive is the fact that after Hurricane Diane took out both the screen and projection booth in 1955, a new and improved Shankweiler’s reopened shortly after the catastrophic storm. Admission is $9 for a double feature; a “jumbo” popcorn will set you back only $5.75.

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Rodeo Drive-In, Bremerton, Wash.

Rodeo Drive-In/Facebook.

A one-time Shangri-la for drive-in devotees, Washington has experienced an exceptionally steep decline in al fresco theater establishments over the years. As one of Washington’s five remaining drive-ins, the three-screen throwback known as the Rodeo is still very much alive, well and charging $9 a head for nightly double features. This 64-year-old establishment in Port Orchard — a 45-minute ferry ride from downtown Seattle to Bremerton plus a 15-minute drive — is the largest drive-in north of California, able to accommodate 1,000 cars.

Other than a recent digital conversion, not much else has changed at the Rodeo including zero tolerance regarding pot smoking (puffing will get you ejected without a refund). On that note, the goodies at “Concessions Central” are standard fare — popcorn, corn dogs, nachos, soft pretzels, etc. — with the exception of a Puget Sound culinary staple: halibut and chips.

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Northfield Drive-In, Hinsdale, N.H.

Northfield Drive-In/Facebook.

Now this is interesting: Although the street address of the single-screen Northfield Drive-In is firmly in New Hampshire, the property also bleeds into Massachusetts, making it the only drive-in theater to straddle two states (Vermont is also in the very near vicinity). Prominently featured in the 1999 historical tearjerker “The Cider House Rules,” the Northfield Drive-In may also be the only place in any state where you can see two movies and scarf a pound of French fries for under 15 bucks.

New England plays a storied role in the history of the drive-in theater, particularly Massachusetts, which was home to several of the very first drive-ins (the first was the Weymouth Drive-In, opened in 1936). By the late 1950s, the state boasted nearly 90 outdoor theater establishments according to DriveinMovie.com. Today, only four remain including the state-straddling Northfield, which opened in 1948.

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10 more for the road

Tom Hagerty/Flickr.

Here are 10 more surviving passion pits worth seeking out:

Silver Moon Drive-In, Lakeland Fla. (pictured here)

No joke: First-run double-headers for $4. Plus, cans of beer and breakfast sandwiches.

The Corral Drive-In, Guymon, Okla.

Come for the double feature, stay for the Loaded Baked Potato Pizza.

Harvest Moon Drive-in, Gibson City, Ill.

Partially powered by wind turbines since 2008.

Capri Drive-In Theater, Coldwater, Mich.

This beloved, family-owned charmer survived the digital switch.

The 49’er Drive-In Theatre, Valparaiso, Ind.

Popcorn is an absolute must — this is Orville Redenbacher territory, after all.

Hull’s Drive-In Movie Theatre, Lexington, Va.

The first (and only?) community-owned nonprofit drive-in movie theater in the country.

Macon Drive-In, Lafayette, Tenn.

When in rural Tennessee ...

Wellfleet Drive-in Theatre, Wellfleet, Mass.

A Cape Cod institution complete with flea market, dairy bar and mini-golf.

The Finger Lakes Drive-In, Auburn, N.Y.

There’s a decent amount of drive-ins still open for business in New York — this is the oldest operating of them.

Sky-Vue Drive-In Theatre, Lamesa, Texas

Home of the infamous Chihuahua Sandwich: Tostada shells filled with homemade chili, pimento cheese, cabbage and onions with a jalapeno on the side.