For a place most people in rural East Central Indiana claimed they never visited, the Blackford County Drive-In theater sure was a landmark in the 1970s.
The drive-in was infamous because it screened pornographic films for decades. Its commercials were familiar to AM radio listeners because they used the mostly instrumental 1963 hit “Wipe Out,” by the Surfaris. If anyone ever knew why that tune was used to advertise a porno drive-in, that knowledge has been lost to the ages.
One thing that every teenager and young adult knew, even if they could honestly claim they never paid admission to the Blackford County Drive-In: there was a little-traveled county road to one side of the drive-in where you could park and see the movie screen – until police or nearby property owners came by to make you leave.
Or so I was told.
The familiar features of a drive-in theater – besides the movies themselves – were the elements that would make them seem so nostalgic in later years. The speakers hanging from poles that were clipped on car windows; the concession stand with foil-wrapped hamburgers and hot dogs; the playground for kids at the foot of the screen; the between-movie animated shorts that encouraged customers to come get some popcorn.
For a generation or two of us who grew up in farm country, drive-in theaters were in many ways the ultimate entertainment venue. In my community, the Ski-Hi Drive-In and Muncie Drive-In entertained families, dating couples, and carloads of teenagers.
Looming above the cornfields where they sprouted, drive-ins were landmarks, literally: Along with grain elevators, the screen towers of our small rural counties’ drive-ins were the skyscrapers we grow up with.
And now all but the hardiest, the survivors, are gone from the American landscape.
Drive-ins as Far as the Eye Could See
Although some accounts say the first drive-in movie theater was Theatre de Guadalupe in Las Cruces, New Mexico, which opened in 1915, the drive-in as Americans would come to know it was patented by Richard Hollingshead in Camden, New Jersey in 1933. He advertised the drive-in as a place for families “regardless of how noisy the children are.”
Drive-ins grew at a great rate in the years following World War II and amid the growth of car culture and numbered more than 4,000 by 1951. While some drive-ins were built in urban areas, the acres of land needed for the screen tower, concession stand and projection building and rows of parking for cars – space dotted with posts upon which hung speakers – meant that many drive-ins were built in rural areas that had been farm fields or fallow ground.
“There were over 4,000 drive-ins throughout the U.S., and most were in rural areas,” the New York Film Academy wrote in 2017.
In the 1950s, people were not optimistic about some things – the threat of nuclear war hung over our heads – but they were bullish on the future of drive-in movie theaters.
The Blackford County Drive-In Theater in Indiana, which would eventually be screening what were euphemistically called “adult” films, was in operation by 1955. For several years, the theater was frequently cited as a landmark in advertising for farm auction sales in the vicinity.
By the late 1960s, the Blackford was showing mainstream movies with a smidge of the naughty, like the 1968 sex farce “Candy.” By 1972, the landmark pornographic film “Deep Throat” was playing at the Blackford weekend after weekend. In June 1973, Reverend Pete Powell wrote a letter to the editor of The Muncie Star newspaper, expressing disappointment that the newspaper was accepting ads for the drive-in: “I believe it would be a public service to stop this before the newspapers become X-rated.”
But drive-in movie theaters – sometimes called “passion pits” – had been screening exploitation movies of all stripes for years. And not just the “disreputable” adult drive-ins.
The More Southern-Fried the Better
The drive-in was a place to go with friends and family throughout much of the 1950s, when the movies that were screened tended to be popular mainstream films as well as “atomic monster” horror films. But for some of us, the 1960s and 1970s were the peak drive-in era.
We saw everything, from “The Legend of Boggy Creek,” the 1972 faux documentary about a swamp monster, to “Gator Bait,” the 1973 exploitation classic featuring Claudia Jennings, to anything with Burt Reynolds – the more southern-fried the better.
A whole night spent at the drive-in was an event and I still vividly remember the marathon of all five “Planet of the Apes” movies in 1974. “20th Century Fox wants you to go ape,” commercials for the marathon said.
There’s almost no movie that seems like more of a natural for a drive-in than “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” director Tobe Hooper’s 1974 horror film that shares the blame, along with “Deliverance,” for capitalizing on a sense of unease about rural places and people. A lot of the movie takes place on long, lonely roads and in remote areas familiar to anyone who’s ever lived in the country.
If you’ve ever driven through the backwater country of Texas – or Tennessee or Georgia, for that matter – and spied a run-down shack and your curiosity made you consider stopping but didn’t, you’ve probably seen “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”
The Screen Rant site in 2022 picked the 10 “most influential” drive-in movies of all time, and they’re an appropriate bunch. Bruce Lee’s 1973 epic martial arts film “Enter the Dragon” leads the list, which also includes “Smokey and the Bandit” from 1977
In 2020, with the pandemic deepening, the thoughts of many turned to drive-ins – or at least the idea of drive-in movie fare. The AARP magazine suggested 16 ‘drive-in classics” that people could watch at home, from “Jaws” to “Grease” to “American Graffiti.”
It’s been reported that drive-in movie theaters benefited from the Covid pandemic in that people who wanted to go see a movie but didn’t want to sit inside a theater could watch a new release from the comfort of their vehicles.
Drive-in theaters saved the movie business during the pandemic, CNN Business reported in August 2021. “Last year, from late-March through mid-August, drive-ins generated 85% of North American box office revenue (and some weeks contributed north of 95%), according to Comscore data provided to CNN Business. During that same period in 2019, drive-ins accounted for just 2.9% of box office revenue.”
CNN speculated that the newly-resurgent drive-in movie might be “here to stay.”
Something else that some speculated might be here to stay: churches using drive-ins for services. In May 2020, The Washington Post reported that just as some churches turned to online services during the pandemic, others decided to hold their gatherings in drive-in movie theaters.
This wasn’t exactly new: The Post noted that Rev. Robert Schuler held church in the Orange Drive-In in Garden Grove, California in 1955. Schuler maintained the idea, even having a church designed with a drive-in component in 1969.
It was a good use for the drive-in space and one that was also capitalized on by the owners and vendors of flea markets, which filled row after row of drive-in space in balmy states like California. I still remember walking through a flea market in a drive-in during an early 1970s trip with my family to Florida.
As Towns Grew, Rural Drive-ins Suffered
When drive-ins failed for the first time, the reasons were many. Television took a toll on all aspects of the movie business. Many were family-owned and couldn’t compete with indoor theaters. And the rural locations of many drive-in theaters were not permanently rural locations, a 2008 article in Smithsonian magazine observed:
“D. Vogel, owner of the Benjies Drive-In near Baltimore, Maryland, said the price of land is the real reason many drive-ins folded.
“’People would build on the outskirts of town, and the town would grow,’ he said. Combine that with the fact that so many drive-ins were mom-and-pop businesses that few descendants chose to continue running, he explained. The results were a sinking number of drive-ins throughout the country.
“’There’s not enough income in it or else you’d see AMC or others getting drive-ins,’ Vogel said. ‘It’s hard-earned money.’”
By 1990, the Blackford County Drive-In in Indiana had fallen into financial disrepair. The county had claimed the 27-acre property, along Ind. 3, for back taxes. Demolition of the remaining structures followed. Its fate was sealed after the county changed the zoning of the property to agricultural use.
The area’s other drive-ins, the Muncie and the Ski-Hi, were longer-lived but ultimately met the wrecking ball. The Ski-Hi opened in 1952 and operated until 2005 but its ruined remains hung on until Delaware County demolished them in 2016. The Muncie Drive-In’s owners decided against reopening in 1987. The screen was later damaged in a storm and demolished. The drive-in’s sign remains for those who recognize what it once was: Now it advertises businesses that have since been built on the property, along Ind. 32 on the city’s west side. But the drive-in it points to is long gone.
“The drive-in’s popularity was short-lived,” Robin Conner and Paul Johnson wrote for Southern Spaces in 2008. “By the 1960s, their numbers began to decline. In the 1970s, many fell victim to suburbanization. Land on which theaters stood became more valuable for commercial development. Theaters resorted to screening exploitation films and adult-only fare. In the 1980s, the advent of cable television and the expanding video rental market brought the drive-in industry to its knees.”
Well before most drive-in theaters closed, there was a feeling that they had lost customers not only to indoor theaters – known as “hardtops” in the theatrical exhibition business – but to cable TV and home video. Why go to a drive-in to see a movie, whether it’s an adult film or an action movie, when you can watch it on late-night TV or videocassette?
The drive-in theaters that remain found the answer to that question. Drive-ins offer people an opportunity to see a movie – sometimes the same blockbusters that are screening in “hardtop” theaters – without going into a theater. Or changing out of their pajamas, for that matter.
Some drive-ins have seen a rebirth. The Mahoning Drive-In Theater in Lehighton, Pennsylvania, for example, opened in 1949 and like most drive-ins saw struggles to stay open. In 2021, plans were in the works to shutter the drive-in and build a solar farm on the site. But that plan was suspended and the Mahoning – reported to be the last drive-in in the United States to screen movies in 35-millimeter prints – was reborn. The drive-in has drawn audiences by screening classic films and cult movies, even offering attractions like “Zombie Fest,” with movies featuring zombies.
But the future of drive-in movie theaters is uncertain. Industry watchers like DriveInMovie.com report on closings, openings and reopening and even report on drive-ins for sale. “If you have ever dreamed of owning a drive-in movie theater, here is a list of operating drive-in theaters that are currently for sale in The United States.” the site says.
More than 300 drive-in theaters were still operating in 2017, according to the New York Film Academy and the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association.
They’re far outnumbered by their sky-scaping neighbors, the grain silos, by now.
Keith Roysdon is a regular contributor to The Daily Yonder and other news and pop culture sites. He took early retirement after a 40-year career in daily journalism in Indiana. He’s co-author of three true crime books for History Press. The third of those books, “The Westside Park Murders,” was named Best Non-Fiction book of 2021 by the Indiana Society of Professional Journalists.