Over the past few weeks news of a drive-in theater resurgence has circulated, with dozens of new drive-ins being prepped to open in the coming weeks – at vacant lots, sites of once-drive-ins that closed long ago, even Yankee Stadium


I tried to remember my first drive-in movie and I began to picture it vividly: The Shining. Jack’s hacking away at the bathroom door and then lightning strikes and a tornado tears apart the massive movie screen. Then, I realized this was a scene from the movie Twister. 


My first drive-in movie was actually True Lies (another Paxton classic) in Ontario with my parents in 1994. Where, fortuitously, a tornado really damaged a drive-in theater two years later. A day that Twister set to screen. This story unfurled into an urban legend claiming the theater was demolished while the movie was playing, spawning a Mandela effect-level mythos where (like me) witnesses confabulated their own memories (See: Twisted Short Documentary).


It’s this kind of storied past that I think sticks with the drive-in and transcends from the gimmick of “outdoor movie theater” to more of a “sacred ground” where families and couples can laugh, cry and be “alone” together without ever really being alone.


Dating back as early as 1915, outdoor and “drive-in” film viewings took place in different parts of America. The first patented drive-in, as we know them, took place in Pennsauken, NJ in 1933 with the concept catching fire shortly after until it would become a quintessential component of 1950’s Americana culture along with diners, muscle cars, and things you saw in Grease


More cars and more kids meant more drive-ins, and the number of theaters nationwide surged from 155 in 1947 to a whopping 4,151 in 1951. The industry would survive for roughly two more decades before it’s inevitable decline as a hotspot for recreation, a place to escape on warm summer nights and a passion pit for romantics.


It was a combination of home entertainment, daylight savings, compact cars and real estate that killed the drive-in. With less nighttime to show films in peak season, less space to sprawl out, more space and options at home with cable and VCRs, and more profit to be made from malls and complexes – It was high time for a seasonal business dependent on the weather.


And as theaters died off across the country, their demographic transformed and the drive-in took on a new seedier, grindhouse-like persona as surviving theaters screened slashers, exploitation films, b-movies and x-rated material. They gradually closed and faded away, an echo of an era, but a fondly remembered one.


There are 300 some-odd drive-ins left in America today – and more expected to open soon. Existing, open drive-ins have been packed these past few weeks (NYT – Thrills, Chills, Popcorn and Hand Sanitizer ). So, it’s not hard to imagine a comeback for the pastime, especially within our nostalgia-consuming culture. If the new temporary and makeshift drive-ins can continue to succeed in-season after quarantine, then they could once again become enduring fixtures of entertainment. 


We’re living in a hybrid age of Multipurpose Retail with coffee shops that double as bars and bookstores. Why not marketplaces and parking lots that become drive-in theaters at dark? Movie theater chains could similarly transform their own lots into drive-ins during summer months.


And if not, and the drive-in dies off again with the quarantine, then these pop-up theaters will have served as a glint of hope during a period of uncertainty and longing. A suitable epilogue chapter for an experience we almost forgot.


Whether torn down by a twister or revitalized by a pandemic, the drive-in is an experience as wistful as it is thrilling and I’ll be going soon.


Jeff Mack, Copywriter