The Starlite Drive-In Theater lies abandoned just off of Highway 290 in Brenham, looking like a dead monument to a time long gone. Anyone taking that route between Houston and Austin will have seen the back of its single screen and a tall metal fence around the perimeter.
Scattered around America, there are many old drive-ins. Most are lifeless husks, either abandoned and slowly being claimed by the elements, or having been repurposed into something entirely different. In other cases, they're simply gone, demolished so the land they sat on could be redeveloped into something more profitable.
Those that have disappeared entirely are relegated to the memories of locals who can still remember going to see movies there, but as time goes on fewer people are around who went to movies when they were open for business. There's a definite ghostlike quality to those old, boarded up drive-in theaters. It seems that most of the ones still standing are usually scattered on the outskirts of small towns where land is plentiful, and not in high demand. There's no rush to buy the theaters, and in those cases they simply stand vacant, as a reminder of a long gone era of American entertainment.
The first drive-in theater opened in 1933 in Camden, New Jersey. Originally known as a Park-In Theater, it was the brainchild of Richard Hollingshead, who was inspired by his mother's inability to get comfortable in traditional movie theater seats. Hollingshead worked for his father's auto products company and decided that people would enjoy watching films in their own cars. So after experimenting with the primitive movie technology available at the time, he opened his first Park-In to great success. In Texas, the Corpus Christi Drive-In opened in the spring of 1939, being the first theater to bring the drive-in phenomenon to the Lone Star State.
In 1949 Hollingshead's patent was overturned, and drive-in theaters began springing up all over the country, fueled by America's post World War II love affair with the automobile. The post-war Baby Boom also drove people into the drive-ins, many of which began promoting playgrounds for young children.. Drive-ins reached their peak in popularity between the late 1950s and mid '60s, with more than 5,000 theaters open across the country during that time period.
Although all drive-ins were big by necessity, since the "seating area" was essentially a large parking lot made to accommodate a few hundred cars, Copiague, New York's All-Weather Drive-In was a true Goliath at the time, featuring parking for 2,500 cars as well as an air conditioned indoor area that seated an additional 1,200 seats, with amenities like a playground and a full service restaurant. While the exception, there were several other drive-ins of the period that were able to serve more than 2,000 cars at a time, including Lufkin's Panther Drive-In which could take in as many as 3,000 vehicles, one of the largest in the country.
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The heyday of drive-ins brings an almost idealized picture of life in post-war America to mind. Like tail-finned cars and early rock and roll, the outdoor theaters are icons of a time period that many people think of as the best years our country ever experienced. Of course, that sort of nostalgia is conveniently forgetful of many terrible things that were going on at the time, such as segregation and McCarthyism, but many still think of it as a golden age in this country's history. In the case of car culture it certainly was, and the idea of heading down to the drive-in with a carload of friends or a date was an appealing one at the time, especially with young people.
Cars have long represented a certain amount of freedom to teenagers and young adults, symbolizing the ability to get away from the watchful eyes of adult authority figures and to do what they wanted to without supervision. Drive-in movie theaters were once an ideal place for kids to go have a night of cheap fun. Most of them played the kinds of B-movies that teenagers of the time would probably have flocked to, and the privacy of being in one's own vehicle instead of exposed in a movie theater was almost certainly appealing. It's likely that quite a few young people rounded second or third base for the first time watching a Roger Corman film at their local drive-in.
The first drive-in that I experienced was The Twin City Drive-In, which operated in my hometown of Rosenberg from 1950 until it closed in 1983. I was fascinated with the place as a small kid in the '70s, primarily because it had a feature lots of drive-ins shared -- you could see the films being played as you drove by on the road running behind the place. Since that theater tended to play B-Movie horror films by that period in its history, I'd caught a few glimpses of things flickering across the huge screen that my mom would not be pleased by. I'm pretty sure that the first pair of bare breasts I ever saw on a screen came compliments of the Twin City Drive-In, and that screen facing one of Rosenberg's main drags.
I only got to go to the theater once that I remember, when a re-release of Pinocchio made its way through town. Unfortunately, the very nature of a drive-in theater made a car mandatory, and the Twin City closed for good a couple of years before I could drive. There's no longer any sign that the site (which has since been redeveloped into a strip shopping center) once was the location of Rosenberg's drive-in movie theater, but I still occasionally pause to look wistfully at its former spot as I drive through.
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The '80s were a hard decade for drive-ins, as many changes in the way people entertained themselves began to drive the outdoor theaters out of business. The emergence of mall culture and video game arcades gave teens other options to spend their money, and with the birth of the VCR, a lot of people all but gave up on actually leaving their homes to see a movie.
Along with those newer entertainment options, drive-in theaters always faced challenges that their indoor brethren did not. When the weather was ideal a night, at the drive in might almost seem magical. There's something about watching a movie under a canopy of stars that is hard to duplicate, but the problems start when the weather wasn't cooperating. A sudden rainstorm or extremely hot or cold weather sure could put a damper on movie night at a drive-in, and here in Texas there were also pests like mosquitoes to contend with. As more people looked toward indoors activities with perfectly climate-controlled atmospheres, outdoor entertainment attracted fewer patrons. Drive-ins were also always hurt by the fact that they could only show movies after dark because of the limitations of an outdoor projector and screen setup. By the 1980s even traditional indoor theaters were feeling pressure to make ends meet, and they could sell tickets to showings all day long. Drive-ins were out of luck in that regard.
Despite the fact that the 1980s were a cruel time period for the venerable drive-ins still around, in Houston a new one actually opened in July of 1982. The I-45 Drive-In was located at 211 West Rd., and featured six screens. It was a big place, and I went there on many occasions with a date when I was in high school. We'd generally drive up in my beater car and watch a double feature of one of the major horror franchises popular at the time. I have fond memories of watching terrible Friday the 13th sequels followed by some Freddy Krueger slice-and-dice while trying to make out and hoping my crappy car would start again when the movies were over. I was fortunate. Even back then it felt like drive-ins were an endangered species that wouldn't be around much longer, and for the most part that was true. In 1987, there were only 56 operational drive-ins left in Texas, down from 137 just five years before.
By the mid '90s, when I'd discover a drive-in that was still open, it was like seeing a UFO, rare and unexpected. By 1998 there were only 13 still open in the whole state.
The thing is, there's nothing quite like seeing a movie at a drive-in. Not many people mourn the death of video tapes because they were replaced by technologically superior options that provide the same basic experience -- watching a movie on your own television at home. But an indoor theater will never be the same as a drive-in, and if you're a person who still craves the experience of sitting in your own car (or on top of its hood) while watching a film on a huge outdoor screen, you don't have many options unless you're lucky enough to live near one of the few that are still around.
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Fortunately, drive-ins have not completely disappeared. A handful are still out there, and some new ones have even opened as more people have grown nostalgic for the drive-in experience. In Texas, they are few and far between, but we can still enjoy seeing a movie under the stars if we don't mind making the trip. Here are seven that are still open for business in the Lone Star State:
7. The Tascosa Drive-In, 1999 Dumas Drive, Amarillo This theater is $8 for adults and $4 for kids under ten, with infants allowed in for free. Gates open at 8 p.m., and the movies start when it gets dark. The concession menu covers all of the basic ground like popcorn, candy, and hamburgers, but also offers cappuccino and energy drinks. The drive-in has a Facebook page for those interested in more information. The Tascosa was closed, but reopened in 1999, making it an unlikely survivor.
6. Last Drive-In Picture Show, 2912 S. Highway 36 Bypass, Gatesville Built in 1950, but recently converted to digital projection, the somewhat ominously-named theater is a step back into drive-in history with some modern improvements. My understanding is that the theater doesn't show "R" rated films, and I caught the Disney animated Tarzan film when I was last attended a movie there. It has a nice vintage drive-in feel and a good concession stand.
5. Sandell Drive- In, Highway 70 North, Clarendon This is another resurrected drive-in, originally opened in 1955 and closed in 1984. It was named after the original owner's daughters, Sandra and Adele, and has a capacity for 300 cars. The theater was reopened in 2002 by a successful local businessman who had enjoyed the drive-in as a boy. The Sandell is now run entirely by him and a group of volunteers. The gates open at 7:30 and show times are approximately at 9. The theater advertises homemade food in the concession stand, and "The best burgers in the Texas panhandle."
4. Galaxy Drive-In Theater, N. Interstate Highway 45, Ennis The Galaxy Drive-In must be one of the fanciest around, making the drive to the Dallas area city of Ennis worth the trip for fans of these types of theaters. Boasting six screens, each of which plays a double feature, and also claiming to be the first drive-in worldwide with 3D digital technology in the country, the Galaxy mixes the best of old and new. You can listen to the film over your car stereo, or through one of the old style speaker boxes that were the standard back in the heyday of drive-in movies. The theater also plays vintage intermission reels between features, a nice touch for folks wanting a taste of the old school movie experience. The snack menu has all of the normal stuff, but also adds a few unusual treats like tamales to the mix. I think the trip is worth it just to experience a drive-in film in digital 3D.
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3. The Brazos Drive-In, 1800 West Pearl St., Granbury This is a great looking old drive-in. It seems to be especially family friendly, allowing dogs and encouraging patrons to play Frisbee and ball in front of the screen. They will play the occasional rated "R" film, but only as the last film shown in a given night, and only if it's a very popular current film. The theater has a Facebook page for people that want to take a closer look.
2. Big Sky Drive-In, 6200 W. Highway 80, Midland This West Texas drive-in has three screens, all showing double features, and allows people to bring their dogs if they want to. The theater has a particularly large choice of concession food, including box dinners and party sized chicken wings selections. The theater features appropriately old fashioned decor, and should fill anyone's expectations of what drive-in movies have to offer.
1. The Showboat Drive-In, 22422 FM 2920, Hockley This drive-in is of particular interest to Houston area fans, as it's just ten minutes west of Tomball. It's open five days a week, with each of its two screens showing double features. There is a playground for children, and the theater allows people to bring their dogs. The theater is cash only, and has a ATM machine on site, but visitors might want to bring cash with them. The drive-in is family owned and operated, as most of the theaters still in business seem to be, and it would make for a fun night out for people in the Houston area.
This list is far from complete, as there are other drive-ins scattered around Texas. Some are new reinventions using modern equipment, and in a few cases operating at a much smaller scale. Others are the older original drive-ins under new management. They are rare reminders of a once common form of American entertainment, and worth seeking out for the chance to watch a film on a large outdoor screen on a pretty night out with a date or your family.