There’s a good chance that if you’re better than 40 years old, you have a vivid recollection or two from a drive-in movie theater. After all, more than 4,000 of them once peppered the American landscape. For Bob Mondello, National Public Radio’s film critic, the most potent memories are of the zany ploys he used to lure customers to the drive-ins of the Roth theater chain, where he was advertising director as a young man. In a 2000 piece on Weekend All Things Considered, Mondello remembered dusk-to-dawn John Wayne films, racing movies and all night horror-thons replete with concessions colored blood red.
Regrettably, Americans’ passion for drive-ins has since cooled. Enormous screens that brightened movie goers’ hearts have since succumbed to neglect or given way to redevelopment. There were once nearly fifty drive-ins in Maryland alone. Today, there are just a couple, including Bengie’s Drive-In Theatre near Baltimore.
Elkridge Drive-In Theatre, circa 1948 (Courtesy Maryland Historical Society [PP30.800.38])
Nevertheless, drive-ins had a good run, in large part because they combined two American obsessions. After World War II, movies became a more accessible pastime, less something fit for a grand theater. Right around then, too, cars became a part of many families. Drive-ins mixed those luxuries in perfect measure.
“You could argue that the appeal of drive-in theaters stems from combining two things Americans dearly love: movies and cars,” Mondello told me. “The romance of the automobile is indisputable—NASCAR drivers refer to their rides as “she,” designers give Detroit’s sportiest models feminine, coke-bottle shapes—while movies offer the romance of an escape from the everyday into a world of adventure. So what better way to forget your troubles on a warm summer night than to take your honey (or your family) to a drive-in for a double-feature?”
Look for these icons of the baby boomer generation, however, and the marks they left have all but vanished. While in Maryland recently, I sniffed out a handful of old drive-ins around the Washington, D.C.-to-Baltimore corridor. I found few footprints left from what these sites had once been.
I parked on Cinema Court in Clinton, for instance, but couldn’t make out even the barest trace of this ground’s past life: a concession stand and projection booth, rows and rows of ramps and a towering screen that once illuminated laughing or terrified or kissing faces with the glow it cast. The residents of this neighborhood are clearly proud of their homes and keep them well, but the Ranch Drive-In, where Mondello recalls all-night Elvis Presley movies—five of them back-to-back—exists in memory and pictures only.
Cinema Court, what was once the Ranch Drive-In
I found similar states of redevelopment at six other theaters: the North Point, Elkridge, Hillside, Hancock, Super Chief, 301. The only theater that was anywhere near recognizable as a drive-in was the ABC in Oxon Hill, but that, too, showed signs of impending development. This transformation is understandable; when technology allowed Americans to watch movies at home, the drive-in passed its prime and made the ominous transition from a beloved and ubiquitous form of recreation to one that was quaint and antiquated. Land that was once far removed from suburbia’s tendrils soon found itself surrounded by growing neighborhoods.
More than ninety percent of drive-ins have been lost, but there remain a many—upwards of 350—that refuse to surrender. A number of websites keep alive the memories of theaters that once were and direct movie goers to those left to be found (such as Drive-In Theatres of the Mid-Atlantic Past and Present and The Drive-In Theater). Says Mondello: “For 21st century audiences, there’s a retro appeal in this kind of entertainment, and also the appeal of escaping crowded suburbs and shopping malls for a drive to the relative quiet of a setting open and uncluttered enough to support a drive-in’s need for parking space and darkness.”
In that sense, the modern drive-in experience is as much an escape from the growth that has claimed so many old theaters as it is a vicarious thrill through the films that light up the screen.
ABC Drive-in, Oxon Hill (can you see the bedded buck, top right?). Will be homes soon.
The Elkridge Drive-in today; development coming soon. Relics from its past life?
Hancock, MD Drive-in concession stand and projection booth.
North Point Drive-in, Dundalk, in the process of becoming new homes.
Hillside Drive-in, Coral Hills, now a school and community center
Super Chief Drive-in, Fort Washington. Now a commuter parking lot.
301 Drive-in, Waldorf. Developed into a shopping center. Any traces are found in the woods behind.