Long before he was voting against Proposition 66 and signing a bill to create the nation’s first cap on greenhouse-gas emissions, Arnold Schwarzenegger was busy avenging his parents’ death at the hands of the evil warlord Thulsa Doom. Wielding a shiny sword and clad in not much more than leather underwear, studded wrist cuffs, and an unseemly headband worn over shoulder-length hair, he was just coming into action-hero stardom as the vengeful warrior Conan the Barbarian.
I’ve always had especially fond memories of Conan because I first watched it at a drive-in movie theater that my parents took me to: the Wayne Drive-In Theater in Wayne, Michigan (the theater closed in 1990 and is now home to a Ford truck plant). I can still remember pulling into the lot, tuning our car radio to an FM station to pick up the movie’s sound, and watching the action epic within the comfortable confines of our own car. The whole experience was fascinating to me.
When I visit the movie theater today, it’s still fascinating, but not because it’s a memorable big-screen experience. Going to the theater these days means dealing with $12 admission, overpriced Sno-Caps and stale popcorn, and a theater full of patrons who either refuse to turn off their cell phones or refuse to remain silent. Reading about drive-ins makes me wish I could forgo the frustration of the indoor cineplex for this nostalgic, eventful experience. It’s almost unimaginable: you pay a mere $6 to $8 for admission (for not one but two films), enjoy a full menu of everything from chili fries to cheeseburgers, take pleasure in being inside your own car, wearing sweatpants and snuggled up with your blankets and pillows, and, best of all, don’t have to listen to people next to you chatting incessantly throughout the entire film.
At the peak of their popularity, there were some four thousand drive-in movie theaters in the United States; now, there are somewhere around four hundred. Here are just a few that are definitely worth taking a detour from the multiplex for.
Mission Tiki Drive-In: Montclair, California
This California drive-in, which opened in 1956, boasts four movie screens and a snack bar with a full selection of Mexican food. In 2006, the theater was refurbished completely to house a state-of-the art projection system and tiki-hut ticket booths. The theater also holds a “World Famous Swap Meet” on Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, featuring over three hundred vendors. Adult admission to the swap meet is 50 cents; adult admission to the theater is $7.
Shankweiler’s Drive-In Theatre: Orefield, Pennsylvania
Shankweiler’s Drive-In Theatre, the oldest operating drive-in in the United States, was opened in 1934 by Wilson Shankweiler; it was the first drive-in to open in Pennsylvania and the second to open in America. The theater has been transmitting sound over an FM-radio micro-vicinity broadcast since 1986 and is one of the first drive-in theaters in the country to do so. The menu at the snack bar includes everything from turkey and pork barbecue to white-chocolate milk and funnel cake. Adult admission is $8.
Elm Road Triple Drive-In: Warren, Ohio
This family-run complex, which just celebrated its sixtieth anniversary in 2010, features three screens and a full dessert menu that includes everything from hand-dipped sundaes to apple dumpling topped with ice cream. In a July 2010 article, the Tribune Chronicle quoted the drive-in’s manager, Sheri Hocevar, as saying, “The drive-in still is and always has been a magical experience.” Hocevar is the third generation in her family to operate the Elm Road Drive-In. Adult admission is $8.
The 49er Drive-In: Valparaiso, Indiana
This Indiana drive-in’s name isn’t a reference to the San Francisco 49ers; it refers to Highway 49 in Ohio, which it’s located close to. It’s been in operation since 1956, with two screens and an extensive menu featuring all the drive-in movie theater staples, including corn dogs and giant pickles. The complex also hosts special events such as the 49er Carnival Night. Adult admission is $8.
The Capri Drive-In Theater: Coldwater, Michigan
It’s no surprise that some of the best drive-in theaters are in the state where the automobile was born—Michigan. The Capri Drive-In, located about an hour outside of Lansing, Michigan, in the southwestern area of the state, has been family owned and operated by the Magoc family since 1964. The theater pays tribute to the inventor of the drive-in, Richard M. Hollingshead, Jr., on the first day of June every year with Hollingshead Day, and in October, it hosts a Halloween party with a costume contest and specially priced admission. The Capri has two screens and a full snack bar. Adult admission is $8.
When Hollingshead opened the country’s first drive-in theater in 1933, he advertised his movie complex with the slogan “The whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are.” This notion still rings true today. Drive-in movie theaters offer not only a unique family experience, but also a glimpse into a form of entertainment from yesteryear. If you find yourself with nothing to do on a Friday night, step on the gas and travel back in time for a night under the stars at your nearest drive-in. Enjoy the show!