Turn on, drive in, drop out: These drive-in theaters help keep a special movie tradition alive

America's drive-in movie theaters are a blast from the past but with a modern twist. (Photo illustration: Alex Cochran for Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images)
America's drive-in movie theaters are a blast from the past but with a modern twist. (Photo illustration: Alex Cochran for Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images)

From the hum of car engines to the buckets of popcorn, drive-in movie theaters are a staple of American cinematic history. As the summer season kicks into full swing, America’s drive-ins are gearing up for the busy season by prepping for unique entertainment options ranging from movie screenings and musical performances to flea markets and food truck festivals.

Drive-in movies were once a mainstay of American life — at its peak in 1958, the industry boasted more than 4,000 across the nation, according to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association. While those days are long gone due to a variety of factors, a few hundred remaining drive-ins proudly keep the tradition in gear today.

“Drive-in movie culture spans generations, income levels and family status,” says Harry Marks, a classic film and Hollywood historian who hosts the social media channel Let’s All Go to the Lobby, who points out that drive-ins cater to both an older crowd looking to recapture nostalgia from their youth and younger audiences seeking to share the moviegoing experience they’ve heard about from their parents and grandparents. “It can be simultaneously communal and solitary — we’re watching a movie with other people, but we’re all sequestered in our own vehicles.”

As regular movie theaters shut down in 2020 during the pandemic, drive-ins found a new life of their own that continues to resonate today. Here’s a look at five across the United States that are taking the drive-in movie experience to the next level.

 A large neon sign at Shankweiler's Drive-In Theatre.
Shankweiler's holds the Guinness World Record for the oldest drive-in theater in the world. (Courtesy Elise Fegely.)

Claiming to be the oldest operating drive-in in the world, Shankweiler's Drive-In Theatre opened its doors in 1934. “We have a Guinness World Record,” says Lauren McChesney, who co-owns Shankweiler’s with her husband, Matt McClanahan. A staple of the Great Depression, the Orefield, Pa., drive-in just celebrated its 90th anniversary in April with a reenactment of the first version of Shankweiler’s: a bedsheet hung between two flagpoles surrounded by historic cars. While the setup has gotten a glow-up since then, Shankweiler’s dedication to preserving the history of drive-in theaters remains.

People walking around and sitting on picnic benches at Hull's Drive In Theatre.
Hull's Drive-In Theatre is a not just about movies — it’s also a hub for the community. (Courtesy Hull's Drive-In Theatre.)

Tucked away in Lexington, Va., Hull’s Drive-In Theatre is the only nonprofit drive-in theater in America. While it shows the biggest new releases, it also relies on the classics, attracting crowds for showings of The Goonies and Grease. But Hull’s community involvement also speaks volumes to how significant the role of drive-in theaters has been throughout American history, as you’ll find a team of volunteers helping out at the concession stand and ticket booth and for local events. Another bonus: It recently built a stage in front of the screen to provide pre-movie entertainment from local musicians and school music groups.

A sign for Delsea Drive-In reads: NJ's only drive-in movie theatre.
Delsea Drive-In claims its regulars come for the food as much as they do for the films. (Courtesy John DeLeonardis)

As New Jersey’s only drive-in movie theater, Delsea Drive-In Theatre has solidified its place in cinema history. When locals are hungry, they head to Delsea to feast on the drive-in’s beloved food menu, which is one of their greatest assets, says co-owner Jude DeLeonardis. Regulars enjoy the chicken cheesesteaks and soft-serve ice cream, but anyone with specific dietary needs will be particularly pleased since there are even gluten-free, vegan and low-carb options on the menu.

Cars lined up and people sitting outside in folding chairs at Four Brothers Drive-In during an evening showing.
Four Brothers Drive-In also has a camping area and a hotel on-site. (Courtesy John Halpern for Four Brothers Drive-In)

Amenities are the name of the game at Four Brothers Drive-In, located in Amenia, N.Y. Guests can come for a show and spend the night camping under the stars, or fuel up on pizza at the on-site restaurant. There’s even an airstream hotel, Hotel Caravana, which allows guests to soak up the small-town wonder of Amenia while embracing the simple joys in life, ranging from rail trails and bucolic farms to antique shopping and quaint cafés. But it’s the adaptability of Four Brothers that keeps locals and tourists coming back for more; during the day, the drive-in functions as a communal park that welcomes humans and canines alike.

A sign at Wellfleet Drive-In Theatre advertising that Inside Out 2 and Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire is playing.
Wellfleet Drive-In Theatre. (Courtesy Erik Wieditz)

A Cape Cod mainstay, the Wellfleet Drive-In Theatre has been around since 1957, when its first feature was Desk Set starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Since then, the venue has expanded. You’ll find a traditional indoor cinema, a dairy bar and a mini-golf course to kick your summer activities into full gear. But starting Memorial Day Weekend, the flea market is a significant draw to the parking lot, where you’ll find up to 150 vendors peddling their wares.