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The Oldest Drive-ins in the World

by DriveInMovie.com; Released : 2018-05-04

The first drive-in theater was opened in 1933 in New Jersey by Richard Hollingshead.  He originally came up with the idea because his mother was a rather large lady who could not fit comfortably in standard theater seats.  So he set up an outdoor screen and projector so he and his mom could enjoy movies together from the front seat of his car.  From there, as they say, the rest is history.  The second drive-in opened in 1934 and that is when the drive-in theater boom began.  Drive-in numbers increased steadily until reaching their peak of about 4000 in the United States in the late 1950’s.  From there, a slow and steady decline began.

Some people are surprised to learn that there are still drive-in theaters around and that they are not just a relic of the past.  While it is true that most drive-ins have closed, there are still about 330 operating in the United States.  That is down over 90% from their peak of about 4000 in the late 1950’s.  But of those drive-ins that remain, most are very popular in their local communities and stay packed during warm summer weekends.

A lot has changed since the first drive-in opened.  For the most part, gone are the days of 35mm film projectors and pole speakers which have been replaced by digital projection and FM audio transmission.  Today’s drive-ins are more advanced than those of yesteryear.  However, while the technology has changed and advanced, some things at the drive-in still remain the same.  If you want to get a feel for what it was like to visit a drive-in of old, then why not visit one of the oldest operating drive-ins in the United States where (other than the technology), not much has changed.  We compiled a list of the 5 oldest operating drive-ins (all in the United States).  Here they are listed by age.

1.      Shankweiler’s Drive-in located in Orefield, PA (opened 1934)

The oldest operating drive-in in the world is Shankweiler’s Drive-in which is located in Orefield, PA which is about 15 minutes outside of Allentown, PA.  And while Shankweiler’s has had many owners over the years, the 2018 season marks its 85th year of continuous operation (never been closed a season).  If you want to visit over the weekend, plan on getting there 2 to 2 ½ hours before movie time as the drive-in is very popular and fills up quickly and normally sells out on weekends. 

And if owning and operating the oldest drive-in in the world has any appeal to you, Shankweiler’s is currently for sale for $1.2 million.  Shankweiler’s is open seasonally from April thru September.  You can learn more about Shankweiler’s here

2.      Lynn Auto Theatre located in Strasburg, OH (opened 1937)

Opened in 1937, the Lynn Auto Theatre is Ohio’s oldest operating drive-in and the second oldest in the world. The Lynn is a two screen drive-in located in Strasburg, OH which is in the north east corner of the state.  Their motto since 1937 has been, “Come as you are in the family car” which pretty much sums up what visiting a drive-in is all about. 

The Lynn Auto Theatre is open seasonally from May thru September.  Visit here to learn more about the Lynn Drive-in.

3.      Saco Drive-in located in Saco, Maine (opened 1939)

Opened in 1939, the Saco Drive-in is the third oldest drive-in still in operation.  It is located just a few miles from the ocean in Saco, Maine which is about 12 miles south of Portland, Maine.  While just a single screen drive-in, the Saco is a fairly large drive-in with a 500 car capacity.  It is actually located farther north than some parts of Canada and for this reason, generally does not open for its season until mid-May or a little later.

The Saco is one of just 6 drive-ins left in Maine.  Click here to learn more about the Saco Drive-in.

4.      M.E.L.S Drive-in Theater located in Thorntown, IN (opened 1946)

We are out of the 1930’s and jump into the 1940’s with M.E.L.S. Drive-in Theater located in Thorntown, IN.  M.E.L.S. Drive-in is a single screen drive-in that was opened in 1946 just after the end of World War II.  It has had several names throughout the years.  At one point, one of the owners renamed it to MELS after his wife Melanie.  And at some point later, another owner kept that name but added the periods to make it M.E.L.S.  Their existence was in doubt a few years ago as they did not know if they would be able to afford to switch to digital projection.  But with the help of a Kickstarter fundraising campaign, they raised the funds and made the switch.

M.E.L.S. charges $25 per carload and is open seasonally from April thru September.  Learn more about M.E.L.S. here.

5. Hilltop Drive-in located in Gregory, SD (opened 1946)

While all our other oldest drive-ins have been in the eastern half of the United States, we move farther west with our 5th oldest drive-in which is the Hilltop Drive-in located in rural Gregory, South Dakota.  The Hilltop was opened shortly after M.E.L.S. back in 1946 as well.  The Hilltop is a small, single screen drive-in which holds about 240 car.  The Hilltop was also in jeopardy of closing a recently but managed to raise the funds to place a down payment on a digital projector which allows them to show first run movies.

The Hilltop is open seasonally from May thru September.  Learn more about the Hilltop Drive-in here.

Hopefully all the drive-ins listed above will continue to operate and thrive for many more years.  We are only 15 years away from having a drive-in that is 100 years old.  If you love drive-ins and want to help support them as well as stay up to date on drive-in news, please like our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/driveinmoviepage/.  Or to find a drive-in near you, visit www.DriveInMovie.com.