Drive-in theaters, like tail-finned cars and raccoon hats, recall a more carefree and innocent time in our country’s past. On the occasion of National Drive-In Movie Day (June 6), we pay tribute to those outdoor palaces at which millions of families (and amorous couples) would park their cars and gaze at giant flickering screens.
The lights haven’t completely gone out on all our open-air theaters: there are 357 still-operating drive-ins in America (from a peak of 4,063 in 1958). But they are last remnants of an industry whose decline — like Ernest Hemingway's famous description of a bankruptcy — came gradually, then suddenly. Many more sit abandoned and neglected.
Who with a camera can resist the sad sight of our roofless movie palaces of yesteryear? Not Flickr users. We bring you 11 of their best abandoned drive-in finds:
Drive-ins represent a carefree time straight out of American Graffiti. Now, many of them just attract American graffiti. The long-defunct Redland, which ran adult movies in its final days, is a handsome reminder of a once-thriving business, with its remaining neon tubing seemingly just a flick of a switch away from beautifying the night sky again. A salvage yard now sits behind the so-called “screen tower” (on which the screen was mounted). And, yes, that’s a home, also abandoned, built onto the bottom of the tower. Note too, the extensions added on both sides of the tower to accommodate the various widescreen formats (like Cinemascope) that were popular in the 1950s.
Closed: (probably) late 1970s
We can date this theater in northwest Pennsylvania by the wording on its screen tower — theaters in the 1940s often incorporated the immediately descriptive “Auto”in their names. Flowery and more evocative names emblazoned in neon came with the decade that followed. It seems the Auto has met a similar fate to that of the Redland: It’s now home to a lumberyard.
Saint Ann, Mo.
Occasionally there is a happy ending for an especially eye-catching marquee, if not the drive-in that sat behind it. A beloved example of adaptive reuse for signage is how the giant majorette who once beckoned moviegoers in Missouri with a spinning baton and trotting neon legs still lights up at night to attract passing grocery shoppers and gas-guzzlers. Hey, it beats marching to the junkyard.
Closed: 1970s or 1980s
After sitting unattended for some years, the Midway was snatched up by new owners, who wanted to build their home where the snack bar once stood. Since this photo was taken, they’ve repainted the screen tower, keeping the Native American-inspired zigzag design and colors but eliminating the name, most likely to discourage impressed passersby from dropping in for a double-feature.
Closed: probably 1980s
What we wouldn’t give to see those long-dimmed, neon wagon wheels spinning again as the dusk sets on those low-slung mountains in the distance. We hope there are still some ghostly pioneers enjoying this dormant but surprisingly intact location. (There’s a similarly themed drive-in called the Comanche that just reopened up the highway in Buena Vista, Colo.)
Colorado hardly had a monopoly on animated marquees with Western themes. Once upon a time, a tiny Native American unloosed neon arrows at automobiles racing by on Route 97. His (pre-PC-era) motto: “See um tonight” was clearly aimed at motorists with a sudden hankering for cinema alfresco.
Here’s another happy example of a marquee with an unexpectedly long life. As you might guess by the wording on the sign: The local Walmart repurposed this bit of cultural history. So, unlike the stoic Native American in that old antilitter commercial, this one didn’t need to shed a tear, neon or otherwise.
Of the 4,000 or so drive-ins that once existed in America, it seems about 3,998 of them were called the Starlite. Of course, this example — with its beat-up tin screen tower and flea-market banner — has none of astral splendor suggested by its name.
North Madison, Ohio
Neglected and overgrown with vegetation, this could totally be the place that a crazy old local warns a group of teens not to go: “Whatever you do, steer clear of the old Skyway! Strange things — bad things — happen there!” The abandoned drive-in has even inspired a poem (“The term is “dark,” not closed …).
PYMATUNING LAKE DRIVE-IN
This rural Ohio location got a jaunty, patriotic makeover just before going dark two years ago. But, as with many of the better-kept locations, a flea market continues to operate in the daytime — and keeps hope alive that someday films will return come evening.
Opened: late 1950s
How about one more Starlite for the road? All that’s left of this one is the entrance booth, but as ticketways go, it’s a real beaut. With the movie palaces of old, the slogan was “The show starts at the sidewalk,” but with the great drive-ins of yesteryear, the show started at the road.
Photos: Redland Drive-In © Jacki Myers/Flickr Creative Commons; Auto Drive-In © Debra Jane Seltzer/Flickr Creative Commons; Airway Drive-In © Mister Scantastic/Flickr Creative Commons; Midway Drive-In © Robert E. Weston Jr./Flickr Creative Commons; Frontier Drive-In © Dayna Bateman/Flickr Creative Commons; Pow-Wow Drive-In © Where R U/Flickr Creative Commons; Chief Drive-In © Mike Garofalo/Flickr Creative Commons; Starlite Drive-In (Brenham, Texas) © James Gordon/Flickr Creative Commons; Madison Skyway © Scott Amus/Flickr Creative Commons; Pymatuning Lake Drive-In © Scott Amus/Flickr Creative Commons; Starlite Drive-In (Schertz, Texas) © Exquisitely Bored in Nacogdoches/Flickr Creative Commons