Ohio Drive-In Theaters: A Dwindling Era
“The drive-in theater is where you used to go with your boyfriend,” says my mother as we drive along the gravel parking lot of the South Drive-In in Columbus, weaving through vintage speakers to find our spot for the evening. “Wake Up, Little Susie” serenades us into a 1950’s flashback forcing smiles on my parent’s faces as they join a lonely girl on assignment uncovering one of the few drive-in gems in Ohio still in operation.
My parents, Don and Robbie Hamper, recall the last time they were at a drive-in theater during their dating years in the 1950s and 60s. Dad picked up mom in his old Hudson and they shared a romantic outdoor evening watching “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” These theaters played such a special role in the dating world back then.
The South Drive-In opened in 1950. The original marquee stands today with eye-catching colors that serve as a beacon from a mile down High Street. First-run movies show every night of the week on two screens, each running three consecutive movies. So, with enough caffeine, or a good nap during the day, you can catch all three which end around 2:30 a.m.
For $9.00 admission (which is less expensive than regular theaters), it’s a good bargain for the entertainment. Even the snack bar concessions are reasonable prices, selling small popcorn for $3.50. We chose the screen showing “Tammy,” while the screen behind us in another parking lot featured “Transformers” for the first showing.
It is clear as I look around the packed parking lot that we aren’t the only ones who enjoy the nostalgia of drive-in theaters.
Many of these visitors are regulars introducing a dwindling era to a new generation. Some people have small grills cooking chicken and setting up dinner at one of the many picnic tables; some couples are snuggling up with blankets and snacks in the back of pick-up trucks and some families are creating make-shift camps on the top of their vans clearly prepping for a long and comfortable evening.
My dad’s seat of choice was the driver’s seat of the van with his own personal speaker clipped to the window –probably a similar seat he preferred the last time he went to a drive-in theater more than 50 years ago. Mom and I settled-in with parade chairs in front of the car. The air was cool, the stars were bright and the space was comfortable. It was a delight to how see each group of people created their own way to enjoy the drive-in experience.
The South Drive-In is one of only 28 left in Ohio. Our state was a pioneer in the drive-in era with one of the first ever, The Starlight Auto Theater in Akron, which opened in 1937. By the late 1960s Ohio had more than 189 drive-in theaters in operation. Even with an 80 percent decline in operational theaters, Ohio remains one of the top five drive-in theater states in the country.
When our movie ended and we packed up our chairs, it was clear that dad was prepped to stay for the long haul –which he probably did in his youth. The five minute intermission between movies showcased vintage cartoons on the giant screen. We left sometime during the second movie, “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” but the rekindled joy of the drive-in experience made us vow to go again very soon.
For a comprehensive history of drive-ins and listings of theaters across Ohio check out Driveinmovie.com.