How to define the drive-in theater

Blue Moonlight Drive-In at night

The Blue Moonlight Drive-In (Galesburg IL) at night. © DepositPhotos / sgtphoto.

What is a drive-in theater?

That’s not a rhetorical question. Over the years, I’ve called out Things That Are Not Drive-Ins. The most common example of Not is a movie night in a park where everybody sits in chairs or on blankets and the organizers can’t resist calling any outdoor movie a “drive-in.” But the line between Drive-In and Not is getting thinner.

Consider what a drive-in theater requires. It must have a permanent location, although that location can shift. A “pop-up drive-in” that visits various parking lots doesn’t count.

A drive-in theater must have room for cars. Additional pedestrian seating is okay, but you can’t have a drive-in without drivers.

A drive-in needs a screen, but now the line starts to get blurry. Does it need to be a permanent screen? Consider the Blue Starlite Mini Urban Drive-In in Austin TX. As you can see by this photo, the BSMU used a very temporary-looking screen. Other such parking-lot drive-ins have used the side of a building as a screen. Should that disqualify it? I’d say no, so screen permanence isn’t a requirement.

I can’t think of any other requirements, except perhaps that it needs to be open to the public. Whether it uses film or digital, new movies or old, mainstream or porn; whether it’s got a concession stand, food trucks, or nothing; if cars can drive to a particular place to watch movies on a screen, that’s a drive-in theater.

Here’s a related question: When is a drive-in “active,” as opposed to permanently closed? Most cases are obvious. Many drive-ins are dormant over the winter, but like leafless trees in December, that doesn’t mean they’re dead. When a drive-in stays dark through summer, or announces that it won’t reopen, then it’s closed.

Turns out that there are some marginal cases. Consider Manistique MI’s Cinema 2, a single-screen theater named for US Highway 2. The Cinema 2 closed in 2001. Fifteen years later, its screen and buildings were amazingly still in good shape, so civic charities sponsored one-shot movie nights twice in 2016. (The most recent was covered here.) For now, I’d still call that one closed, but if they ramp up to once a month or more, I’d reconsider.

Then there’s the Hilltop in Chester WV. Struggling with the conversion to digital movies, it was closed all summer until it found a film distributor and reopened this month. Was the Hilltop “closed,” or was it just dormant? I’m just glad it’s back now.

There will always be cute little stories about fake drive-ins, like the Kansas elementary school that built one in its gym. These offshoots illustrate how deeply the idea of a drive-in is ingrained even for those unfortunates who haven’t experienced it. Drive-ins are here to stay, and Carload will be here to tell you about them.