The Rise and Fall of Drive-In Movie Theaters

Due to the hardships of 2020, many businesses temporarily shut down, including movie theaters. Because of this, there was an unexpected surge in outdoor movies, making it easy to enjoy films and still socially distance in the comfort of your own car. Although few drive-ins operate today, many parks were able to add projector screens to create make-shift drive-in movie theaters. These events have brought back memories of being a teenager. Let’s look back on the history of the outdoor film experience.

The first drive-in theater opened in 1915 in Las Cruces, New Mexico, called Theatre de Guadalupe and renamed De Lux Theater until closing a year later. In 1921, a. new one opened in Comanche, Texas. It became summer entertainment, but only few were around due to the difficulty in logistics.

Films that played in the early drive-ins had sound that came from speakers on the screen. Later on, individual speakers hung from each car by a wire, until a more practical method of micro broadcasting the soundtrack to the car radios was adapted. This proved to have higher sound quality.

A drive-in theater in Stephens City, Virginia, 2013. © Douglas Graham/Getty Images.


Drive-ins started to gain popularity in the 1930s, hitting their peak from the late 1940s through the 1960s. By 1945, the country saw a rise in car ownership and a rural and suburban population boom.

The most popular locations were in rural areas and were a cheaper alternative to indoor theaters. Patrons could save money on gas because they didn’t have to drive into the city, and maintaining the theater was cheaper. Older adults could take care of their infants while watching films in their cars, so did not need to find a babysitter in order to go out.

Circa 1946. © Orange County Archives/Flickr.


By 1951, there were 4,151 drive-ins in the United States, and 4,000 by 1958. Some theaters featured other forms of entertainment, like miniature golf and swimming pools, as well as motels where you could watch the film out the window. However, they had the reputation of being “immoral” because the guests had so much privacy, and were thus labeled as “passion pits.”

The late 1960s saw a decline in attendance because cable and color tv, VCRs, and video rentals were on the rise, and in 1970s, when daylight savings was adopted, theaters had to start an hour later in order to wait for sundown.

Real estate rates intensified in the late 1970s and early 1980s, making the land too expensive for many who owned drive-ins. Weather also played a factor, so some theaters were only able to stay open in the summer, while others just showed films on weekends.

A drive-in theater in Oak Harbor, Washington, temporarily closed as of 2020. © Kelsey Bratt.


Less than 200 drive-ins remained by the late 1980s. Although there was a bit of a revival in the 1990s from those that had what was deemed “boomer nostalgia” (those from the Baby Boom era that felt nostalgia for their teenage years), the theaters unfortunately declined again in the late 2000s.

Perhaps the demand of outdoor theaters in 2020 will continue, and we’ll see a new era of drive-ins. Only time will tell.