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Don’t be sad that there were once more than 4,000 drive-in theaters in America; be delighted that there area still upward of 400 left, keeping alive the glorious tradition of watching movies under the stars. They deserve our support; no one owns a drive-in to get rich. “It’s 100 percent passion,” says Mark Freeman, who with his wife, Jennifer, co-owns the Raleigh Road Outdoor Theatre in North Carolina. Freeman does it because he loved going to drive-ins as a kid, because he loves introducing a new generation to drive-in culture and because he especially loves it when older couples tell him they frequented the Raleigh Road when they were young and now they’re bringing their grandchildren. Here are seven vintage venues that refuse to let drive-ins go quietly into that good night.

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66 drive in theatre

Flickr CC: vhines200

66 Drive-In: Carthage, MO

At last count, there are only 10 drive-in theaters left along America’s Main Street. The 66 on Route 66 in Carthage is celebrating its 70th anniversary. In 2003, it was added to the National Registry of Historic Places. With it’s neon sign, the distinctive 66-foot-high steel-framed screen housing, the original playground and stucco concession stand, it “looks and feels very much as it did when it opened for business,” according to the National Park Service website. Some contend that the 66 inspired the vintage design of the Radiator Springs Drive-in in the Pixar film, Cars.

Hi Way Drive In

HI-Way Drive In Theater

Hi-Way Drive-In: Santa Maria, CA

This single-screen Hi-Way is located smack dab between Los Angeles and San Francisco, about 30-minutes south of San Luis Obispo. Opened in 1959, it boasts an irresistible iconic red neon sign and its ricos nachos served in the snack bar are almost as big a draw as the nightly double-feature of new releases. The movies can be heard on your car radio, but for old school patrons, old-fashioned speakers are available in the first eight rows.

The Mahoning Drive-in Theater: Lehighton, PA

Pennsylvania is home to America’s oldest drive-in (Shankweiler’s in Orfield), as well as this plucky survivor that boasts the largest CinemaScope screen in the state. The Mahoning Drive-In in Lehighton is the subject of a lovely 2017 documentary, At the Drive-In, which chronicles a make-or-break summer in the drive-in’s 70-year history. The traditional opening night double feature is Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and The Wizard of Oz.  This Memorial Day brings the fifth annual Zombie Fest; nine movies in three days.

The Outdoor Theatre drive-in in McHenry, IL

The Outdoor Theater drive-in in McHenry, IL

The McHenry Outdoor Theater: McHenry, IL

The McHenry Outdoor is the last drive-in theater standing in the Chicagoland area, and one of less than a dozen operating in Illinois (The Cascade in West Chicago just closed this year). It opened in 1951 as the Skyline Drive-In and after a renovation, re-opened as the McHenry in 1977. What it lacks in flash and dazzle, it makes up for in history and generational connection, so much so that in 2013 the locals voted in numbers big enough to earn the 800-car McHenry a free digital projector from Honda’s Project Drive-In.

Raleigh Road Outdoor Theatre: Henderson, NC

Mark Freeman and his wife, Jennifer, have co-owned the Raleigh Road in Henderson since 2001 and it’s been quite an odyssey. Renovations and digital upgrades aside, this drive-in is still pretty much setup the same as when it opened 70 years ago as the Moon-Glo. It’s got the same 1949 bunker-style snack bar (with a full menu that includes Philly cheesesteaks). The Raleigh Road shows primarily new releases, but in later summer, the double-bills include classics and cult favorites primarily from the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s like The Goonies. Last year’s pairing of the original Halloween and the reboot was a big hit. “I truly love movies and if we can put on a good show and the people come out, we’ve done our job,” Freeman says. 

August 1960 #5 - Dale_Skyway Drive In

The Skyway Drive-In in August of 1960

Skyway Drive-In Theatre: Fish Creek, WI

The Skyway Drive-In sits across from Peninsula State Park in Wisconsin’s Door County, a popular Midwest vacation destination known as “the Cape Cod of the Great Lakes.” The theater opened in 1950 and is reportedly the longest continually operating drive-in in Wisconsin. It’s pure old school with one screen, two movies and vintage “Let’s go to the snack bar” interstitials and commercials. The Skyway not only runs the vintage ads for Pic mosquito repellent (“Light it and forget it”), but the coils are for sale at the concession stand (and it actually works!).

Bluelite, Austin

Blue Starlite, Austin

BONUS: Blue Starlite Mini Urban Drive-In: Austin, TX

This charmingly funky labor of love has a terrific origin story. Josh Frank started his mini-boutique drive-in to impress the woman who would later become his wife; on their sixth-month anniversary, he projected Grease on an alleyway wall. Eight years later, the Blue Starlite comprises three DIY screens on a rented plot of land. The main screen accommodates 25 cars and 25 pedestrians and shows family fare. A side screen showing cult faves can be viewed by eight cars and 30 pedestrians. A back screen in a forested area is for pedestrians only. Concessions are served out of an RV. There is a second location in Vail, CO.

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Tagged: California, Cheap City, USA, Cheap Tips, Chicago, Events, Family, Top 10 list, Types of Travel

Donald Liebenson

Donald Liebenson

Donald Liebenson

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