Back in 2004 I wrote an article for a statewide publication about drive-in theaters in Kentucky and how they had pretty much become a thing of the past. Twelve years later I wrote another one. In the late 50s and into the 60s there were 117, almost one per county, from one end of the state to the other.
But not so fast my friend. It looks like they are making a comeback. Well, sort of.
There are eight of what were considered dinosaurs still showing flicks in Kentucky and because of the way our world has been turned upside down they are being rediscovered, even repurposed to meet the demand for young and old to get out of the house.
But first a little history.
The first drive-in was said to be in Camden, N.J. in 1933. That number went to 100 across the country by 1942. Drive-ins really didn’t catch fire until World War II ended. That’s when young families moved from the inner cities and bought cars. The drive-in became an inexpensive way to entertain the entire family.
Outdoor theaters were the thing. It became a rite-of-passage for teenagers upon turning 16 and getting their driver’s license. It was a place to socialize, sitting on the hood of a car, on a blanket or in lawn chairs.
Another rite-of-passage was sneaking in. It was the challenge more than anything at the Starlite on the outskirts of Elizabethtown where I grew up. The fifty cent admission
wasn’t the issue. I never got in the trunk of my buddy’s car, but I was driving when a couple of them squeezed in the back of my 1951 Buick. Guilt by association and a party to the crime was just as bad. The drive-ins caught on quickly to this. They stationed “ushers” in several spots and as soon as they saw a trunk pop up they were on the scene to collect their money and write down a license plate number. A stern warning and “if we catch you again you will be banned.”
I was told by friends that one of them would lie down on the back floor board covered by a blanket. I never did this, mind you.
Movie history revealed that in the early 50s drive-ins were attracting more customers than indoor theaters. A slight decline in the 70s followed by an implosion of drive-ins in the 80s saw a decline that rivaled trains, record players and pay phones.
An entertainment venue that offered playground equipment, cartoons, and the opportunity for kids to catch lightening bugs, for a young family at a reasonable price was often a once a week experience.
The demise of the drive-in came about with the popularity of color television, recorders and the cable. Another reason given was smaller cars. Soon better gas mileage took precedence over loading the family into a station wagon.
At one time metro Louisville boasted 10 of the theaters. Today there are none. There are also none in Owensboro, Paducah, Lexington, Covington, Bowling Green, Murray or Corbin.
When the SkyVue Twin in Winchester closed a few years back it took with it the notoriety of being Kentucky’s oldest, built in 1945. Now that claim belongs to Judy Drive-In in Mount Sterling and the Stanford Drive-In in Stanford, both opening in 1952.
But now, because of the world we live in, those drive-ins that have hung on have managed to find other ways to utilize the large space they occupy.
Weddings, high school graduations, concerts, and dances are just some of the ways drive-in theater owners have become creative. But some have upped their game by showing “live” movie concerts simulcast to drive-ins across the country. One such was a one-night-only by country singer Garth Brooks to some 300 drive-ins.
The Sauerbeck family thought it was a no-brainer when they decided to open their Sauerbeck Family Drive-In in LaGrange. When they began the process of identifying the land for their ground-up, state-of-the-art 50-by-80-foot screen, with another to follow and room enough for 500 cars, in mid-2016, they initially experienced resistance from neighbors.
Finally in 2018 the drive-in opened, making it one of the newest in the nation, and giving Louisville an area drive-in.
Some of the drive-ins have gone high tech offering tickets and even food orders on-line. It’s all about making the drive-in experiences as accommodating as possible.
Gary Price owns the Franklin Drive-In in Franklin near the Tennessee-Kentucky border.
“Our business has been great,” he says. “Of course we’ve been doing the social distance thing with our cars and concessions. Being where we are located we get lots of customers out of Tennessee, too.”
The Franklin Drive-In was one of several in Kentucky to sign up for the Garth Brooks and Blake Shelton concerts.
“We sold out for both,” Price said.
At the Calvert City Drive-In in Marshal County the Harrington family has several generations involved since the very beginning in 1953, and they figured out early that the business was more than what was showing on the screen.
“They’re coming for our food,” says John Harrington. “People order ahead and pick it up and don’t even come to the movie.”
It is said that people have stood in line for over an hour to get their eats.
Find a drive-in near you and check it out.
There’s no excuse, get up, get out and get going!
Gary P. West can be reached at email@example.com