Moving Pictures: The Last of Indiana’s Drive-Ins
A night out with the last of the drive-ins.
About five miles north of Spencer, right where a dark stretch of highway bends toward Gosport, motorists traveling west on State Road 67 can catch a glimpse of the big screen at the local drive-in theater.
Forty years ago, when Jon Walker owned the other theater in Spencer—a downtown indoor 725-seater—he learned that an aging businessman and his pretty young wife had purchased the drive-in. “He was the promoter; she was the brains,” Walker remembers. The couple owned a string of X-rated theaters around the Midwest, including a Bloomington drive-in where the college kids flocked, and hoped Owen County would accept their breed of entertainment.
“They all ganged up on him, the county and the city,” Walker says. “He was stupid for buying it in the first place, because the screen faced the highway. There was no way he was going to be allowed to do that sort of thing with a drive-in around here.”
Walker offered to take the property off of the couple’s hands. They wanted $50,000 for it.
“Now, you have to get realistic here,” Walker said, negotiating them into a $21,000 deal.
What Walker got for his money was 18 acres of open space where cars full of rowdy, raucous teenagers from four warring high schools parked on the weekends. The 30-year-old speakers were out of order or, at best, rickety. The movies were such an afterthought that the concession-stand operators regularly broke in to alert the audience that so-and-so’s pizza was ready.
The place needed a fresh start. Walker began with a new name: Cinema 67, in honor of the state highway whose location serendipitously got him into the drive-in business in the first place.
The drive-in was never intended as a showcase for movies. Instead, the concept was invented by a New Jersey auto-parts salesman who wanted to give his mother, a larger-sized woman, a place she could sit comfortably to watch a movie. The salesman opened the first drive-in theater in 1933 in Camden, New Jersey, inspired by the success of the new drive-in restaurants. If eating in the car was a novelty, seeing a movie in one would be a luxury.
Outdoor theaters flourished with the prosperity of the 1940s and ’50s, when Americans had growing families and swelling pocketbooks. In those years, some 200 such venues popped up in Indiana alone, many with names inspired by the times: the Comet in South Bend, the Sky Vue in Lebanon, the Starlite in Osceola, the Moon Glo in Scottsburg.
But the shiny newness soon wore off. The families and couples that flocked to the theaters in the ’50s shifted out of the habit in the ’60s. Many drive-ins grew grimy. By the ’70s, some were downright seedy. The notion of a pornography entrepreneur buying out a family-owned local drive-in became a real possibility.
Then the 1980s arrived, with videocassette recorders and home-theater systems. Suddenly, it seemed, cinephiles could sit in their own homes and eat their own food and still make a night of it. By the close of the decade, only about 20 drive-ins remained open in Indiana.
But as the closing credits started to roll, something unexpected happened. The al fresco cinemas’ demise was stymied—perhaps by nostalgics who remembered the old days and wanted their kids and grandkids to experience the tradition, or perhaps by a changing of the guard, with older owners retiring and new, younger, more enthusiastic operators stepping in. (Wabash’s 13-24 Drive In, for instance, is now operated by the nonprofit Honeywell Foundation.) No matter the cause, the future stopped looking so dim for the moonlight theaters. “It’s kind of been that way for the last decade or so,” says Kipp Sherer, co-founder of drive-ins.com, which maintains a database of both shuttered and operating American outdoor screens. “The closing of drive-ins has slowed, and more are opening from scratch.”
What’s behind the resurrection? Maybe the drive-in was never about the car, as its inventor had planned, nor about the movie, as the audience might have thought, but about community. The more we fill our homes with gadgets to make our movie-watching experience feel like going to the theater, the more we long for the communal experience of sharing a laugh with a stranger or bumping into a neighbor at the concession stand.
“I always tell people I’m not in the drive-in business; I’m in the entertainment business,” says Joe Gaudin, 42, who bought Shelbyville’s Skyline Drive-In from its original owners in 2009. “Let’s face it: If you want to see a movie because you’re really interested in that movie, a drive-in is not your first choice. But if you and your family want to spend time together, somewhere where the kids can run about a little bit and see the same regular crowd, which is typically a family crowd, this is the place.”
Jon Walker, now 76, once owned 10 theaters from Carmel to Vincennes, but he rarely enjoyed a full movie at Cinema 67—and he wasn’t the only one. People around town would call his concession stand, asking workers to interrupt the film to page a friend. The drive-in drew teenagers from area high schools—Martinsville, Cloverdale, Owen Valley, and Greencastle—who paid their admission just to stake out territory in the back rows and start fights or finish them. Sometimes after the shows, a condom or two could be found among the litter.
Walker hired an off-duty deputy to patrol the grounds and brought some professionalism to the concession stand. “We stopped all that monkey business,” Walker says. “Well, that stopped our business, too.”
The rowdy kids, once the core of the drive-in’s receipts, didn’t come around anymore. But Walker continued to make the drive-in better for the people who did. He replaced the speakers with FM stereo sound, broadcast by a local radio station. At first, he kept the front four rows of speaker stands for anyone looking for the authentic sounds of the original drive-in, but his clientele preferred the crisp radio. So he took out all but one row and eventually removed that one, too.
At the concession stand, he began handing customers white plastic bags with their orders. “By hokey, people now will pick up all their trash and put it in the white bag and leave it hanging on the speaker pole,” Walker says. “We have very few people who just outright litter anymore.”
Besides being polite, the crowd is now also, once again, a crowd.
“The theaters will never die. Remember: Every house, every home has a full kitchen in it, but the restaurants still do good business,” Walker says. “You can only sit at home so long. People want to be with people. They want to hear the people around them laughing. They want to be immersed in that effect that we can’t create at home.”
Today, drive-ins face a new threat. By the close of 2013, movie studios will stop producing movies on actual film, and the en-plein-air picture shows must convert to digital technology—at a cost of about $60,000 per screen—or risk being left without any new movies to offer. Most of Indiana’s theaters are finding a way to afford the upgrade. The Melody Drive-in in Knox has already made the switch; the four screens at the only remaining Indianapolis drive-in, the Tibbs, will likely go digital sometime next year. Making that happen, Tibbs owner Ed Quilling says, will require borrowing money and possibly raising admission prices.
Somehow Cinema 67, where Walker still runs the show, will change with the times, too.
“I have no choice. I have to, or this will be the last year for the drive-in,” Walker says. “I’ll find a way.”
Photos by Tony Valainis
This article appeared in the June 2013 issue.