A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Mike Tussey: Once upon a time, they were there, but now gone but not forgotten — the drive-in movies

The tsunami of drive-in movie popularity hit America in the 1950’s and 60’s with the Baby Boomer’s generation. Like anything else, there is always a great history behind anything that gains success.

Here are those drive-in movie elements of operation:

• At least 15 acres land
• A large outdoor movie screen
• A projection booth
• A concession stand
• A large parking area for hundreds of cars

A typical 50s drive-in scene. (Photo provided)

The movie’s sound system early on was provided by speakers on the screen and were later located on a small pole and easily hung from the windows of each car.

By 1951, the number of drive-in movie theaters in America had increased to well over 4,000, most located in rural areas.

The public accepted then right away because it was family-oriented affordable entertainment featuring great movies, playgrounds, popcorn-candy and soda.

Older adults with children could take care of an infant while watching a movie. In fact, parents could come to the movies with their kids in pajamas. Youths found the drive-ins perfect for a first date and for meeting their friends as well.

Some drive-ins even offered luxuries such as bottle warmers, diaper vending machines, and even miniature golf courses and swimming pools.

Ad from a 1955 magazine. (Photo provided)

During the 50s and 60s – you might discover the admission price was $1 per car; during the 70’s and 80’s it may well have been $5 a car.

It was still very affordable for a night of entertainment.

The next two decades 1970-1990, the drive-ins began to decline because of improvements and changes to home entertainment, from color television, and cable TV; to VCR’s and video rentals.

However, since 2020 and as recently in the last few years, it seems that there is renewed interest in Drive-In theaters in America. It seems that after decades of inactivity there is a rapid interest in the outdoor movie experience once again. One reason is that in contrast to attending the theaters and awaiting the movies to begin at dusk or later. Today, there is new technology that the public seem to like very much. Movie buffs can now go to the Drive-In theaters anytime because just like the TV at home, the new theaters do not depend on darkness.

Today, theaters are also used for community events such as – car shows, live entertainment, graduations and even weddings.

Complimenting it all are new screens, wireless in-car FM transmissions, and stage facilities for events.

The roots to all these ideas began with a dream.

The idea of drive-in was conceived as early as 1910.

During the summer of 1933, Richard Hollingshead came up with idea of making movie going more comfortable for those unable to sit in the small seats within the movie theater. He even received the first patent to make it all possible. The inspiration of it all came about when he created a mini drive-in for his mother. The news of his success spread quickly and through the coming years – more and more Drive-Ins began to appear in every state in the country.

A typical drive-in move billboard today (Photo provided)

As mentioned, the 50’s and 60’s popularity was huge with good reason for the young crowd. It was really a 2-tier idea. It was simple. Get a date, go to the drive-in movie, and afterwards head to the favorite cruise-in restaurant for good food and mix with friends. However, the Drive-In movies were also a great place to meet your friends too.

During this era and likely even today, the driver of a car would pay for a single ticket – then find a spot to park. Next order of business – open the trunk and several friends would emerge.

Convertibles with a dating couple would usually put the top up, for obvious reasons – privacy.

Statistics today indicate that there are just over 300 drive-ins still in operation today. Ohio, New York, and Pennsylvania having approximately 30 each still doing business. Hawaii, North Dakota, Wyoming, Alaska, Delaware and Louisiana no longer have any.

Let’s take a look at the drive-in theaters currently operating in greater Cincinnati:

• The Holiday Auto Theater in Hamilton, Ohio. They have been in business for over 60 years and can accommodate 600 cars. They are only open in the Spring, Summer and Fall.
• The Starlite drive-in located in Amelia, Ohio has been in business since 1947. They feature 2 movies for 1 ticket. For an extra $5 – you can bring your own food and drink.
• The Dixie Twin Drive In located in Dayton, Ohio
• The Melody 49 Drive In Brookeville, Ohio

Over in Indiana, there are 20 Drive In theaters all within the Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky area.

Ever seen one of these iconic speakers? (Photo provided)

Here in Kentucky, there are only 8 remaining theaters in the Commonwealth. Kentucky has 120 counties and back in the 1950’s – each county had at least one theater in business.

The two closest to Northern Kentucky are: Mount Sterling features the Judy Drive In theater just off I64 that opened in 1952 and the Sauerbeck Family Drive In located on Griffin Lane in LaGrange opened in August, 2018.

My vivid memories of the yesteryear drive-in theaters back home in the Ashland, Kentucky area spanning the 50’s and 60’s:

• The Trail drive-in on US 60 West opened in 1955 with a capacity of 500 cars. By far, the Trail was the most popular with everyone with great movies, playgrounds etc. Today, Summit RV Sales sits where the Trail became great history.
• Over in Ohio it was the Starlight Drive In on US 52 about 4 miles from Ashland. Very popular-always with a great crowd.
• Across the Ohio River into West Virginia, a huge Drive In was located in East Huntington.
With these 3 locations- all within a few miles in the Tri-State area, always gave movie goers a choice and ultimately a great night out.

So, the rich history of America’s Drive In theaters continues on.

There just might be one open near you – check it out.

With today being VALENTINE’S DAY, make that date with your Valentine. You still have time. It’s never too late. Be sure and bring your box of candy and roses and then head to the Drive In movies! Who knows? There may be one near you.


Mike Tussey has “retired” from a 60-plus-year career as a legendary play-by-play announcer for over 2000 football, baseball, and basketball games, including most recently for ESPN+. His career also includes a stint in law enforcement, teaching and coaching, and writing books, including the “Touchdown Saints.” He grew up in Eastern Kentucky and now lives in Florence with his wife, Jo. He has opened another “Door of Opportunity” and is now a regular columnist for the NKyTribune.

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  1. Charlene Cooper says:

    The Trail Drive In was a very popular place for high school dates. Also for young families. We would take our baby daughter in her little sleeper and she would sleep and we watched a movie. Very affordable entertainment, and we sure had to scrape our pennies together in those early days of raising a family. Many good memories!

  2. Mike Tussey says:

    Charlene…Many Thanks for sharing your memories…You nailed it…it was a perfect place to be for young families especially the price……! Thanks again…!!!

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