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Drive-in hasn’t reached twilight yet

“Today” travel editor Peter Greenberg reports on how this icon of the 50s is making a come-back globally.
/ Source: TODAY

Later today, when the sun sets, at a few hundred locations around America, many will head to their local drive-in movie theatre. The drive-in remains as one of the last remaining icons of America’s love affair with both their cars — and movies. “Today” travel editor Peter Greenberg is in the driver’s seat, with this report.

BELIEVE IT OR not, there are still drive-in movie theatres in America, and for many Americans, the drive-in is, by definition a regular, and reliable travel destination. And while the number of theatres is way down, sit back, relax, because our story is just about to start.

Saturday evening at the drive-in and a long line of cars waits to get in at Shankweiler’s in Pennsylvania.

It’s a scene that’s not easy to come by these days. For years, drive-in’s have been disappearing — a truly American tradition fast becoming a thing of our past.

The first official drive-in opened in Camden, New Jersey in 1933.

It was the brainchild of Richard Hollingshead who experimented with the idea by mounting a Kodak projector on the hood of his car and using a sheet stretched between two trees as the screen.

By the late 50s, drive-in theatres were all the rage. There were more than 4,000 across the country as Americans fell in love with their cars and drive-ins earned their reputation as — passion pits.

Today, only some 400 theaters remain open, with the most in Pennsylvania and Ohio. But some states, including New Jersey, where it all started, have none left.

The 50 year-old Memphis drive-in near Cleveland, Ohio is one of the few big city drive-in’s left.

“It’s very rare you see a drive-in anywhere. I only know of two. It’s like a one of a kind place to go,” says movie-goer Ricky Smith.

A lot of people come early to get a good spot. And for families the drive-in is still a bargain. Where else can a family of four go out for less than 20 bucks?

“This is something I don’t want them to miss out on. This is something we grew up with, says drive-in patron David Sedlik.

Judy Kissel, who manages the Memphis, took over the job from her dad. She remembers the fun she had here as a teen.

“Some of the kids would be drinking and some of the kids would be in the back seats of the cars.”

And in 50 years, nothing much has changed at the Memphis. The kids still play at the playground, the parents still pull up the beach chairs and tailgate and the young lovers, well, they’re way in the back— still necking. As for the movie itself, as always, it’s incidental to the entire drive-in experience.

“He took me here for a first date,” says Claire Elias.

As far as which movie they came to see Claire doesn’t remember which one it was. Inside the cooler Claire has some lemonade for the kids and beer for mom and dad.

Now the coolest thing about a drive-in theater is that every night is a double feature. And you know what that means — intermission!

In fact, selling food and drink is the primary way drive-in theaters make money to pay their overhead. The price of the ticket only pays for the cost of the film.

Fortunately for the Fun Lan in Tampa, Fla., the food gets rave reviews.

And the people here aren’t the only ones who enjoy the food — there must be something special about the Fun Lan popcorn!

“When I work, I eat popcorn everyday, every night and I still love popcorn,” says Chuck Rose.

Now 77, Rose has been eating popcorn and working here since the day the theater opened back in 1950.

It didn’t take him long to discover the benefits of working at a popular drive-in.

“They gave me a Christmas present of a whole weeks pay. Which was $17.50, and I said, ‘this is for me.’”

It’s the same kind of passion for drive-in’s that keeps Paul and Susan Geisinger running Shankweiler’s — America’s oldest surviving drive-in.

Paul and Susan met in high school when they both worked at the local indoor theater.

Susan says, “He was the usher and I was the candy girl and then we got to be friends. And then we started dating and the rest is history.”

The Geisinger’s soon moved their love outdoors when first Paul then Susan came to work at Shankweiler’s.

A decade later, they took over the operation.

“It was destiny,” says Paul.

For the Geisinger’s, it’s a labor of love.

“That’s why we keep plugging along, year after year, good times, and bad times out here. To keep it going,” says Susan.

There are some promising signs that drive-in’s may be experiencing something of a renaissance.

The number of closings has slowed to a trickle in recent years and new ones are opening up — 7 so far this year.

And the trend is going global. There are even drive-ins opening in China alone.

Perhaps the most encouraging sign of all is that families are rediscovering the drive-in and finding it’s the perfect family fare.

One patron says, “We haven’t been here for about 20 years. This is the next time and hopefully not the last time we’ll be here with family.”