by Nickolas Neely | Photo © Bryan Rupp
Several factors played into the decline of these theaters, one of the most silent yet powerful being the establishment of Daylight Savings Time in the 1970s (with spotty implementations prior). Now forced to wait an hour longer for dusk, most cinemas had to begin showing films far too late for young families, a staple customer at the time. Combined with the urbanization of most states, light pollution became another serious issue, and the vast number of drive-in owners ended up selling off the land to the urban sprawl causing the problem. Many drive-ins that weathered these times did so by turning to “adult” movies.
The story of drive-ins has a hopeful ending, however. The growing blockbuster market gave these theaters a chance to host hit films in a “second run,” letting them show big-budget movies for a low-budget cost. Today, the drive-ins that survived the 70s and 80s enjoy nearly full occupancy, selling out most weekend nights.
Turning your car into a private theater box lets you experience cinema in a way no average theater can replicate. Drive-ins no longer have speaker poles with the sound piping into your open window; at today’s drive-ins you tune in to the drive-in’s radio station for sound. On top of just the film, many drive-ins employ various entertainment around the theater, meaning you can show up early to nab your tickets and find ways to easily pass the time before the main feature. Maybe it’s kitsch, or maybe it’s part of a retro revolution. Find out for yourself; some fine evening, pile your tribe into the car and head for a drive-in; here are just a few still playing in the Northwest.
Blue Fox Theater, Oak Harbor WA
The Blue Fox Theater is now much more than simply the Blue Fox Theater. As an Oak Harbor staple for more than 59 years, they’ve turned from a nighttime outing into a full day trip.
To either pass your time between your arrival and your movie or just for a good day’s fun, stop by their on-site arcade featuring more than 20 different machines. Additionally, you can enjoy their 12-car go-kart track.
Just as their complex is far more than a movie theater, their food goes far beyond average cinema food. Every day, the Blue Fox makes fresh-cut curly fries as well as homemade sauce for their specialty pizzas.
During the summer, the Blue Fox stays open 7 days a week. For more information on the Blue Fox Theater, go to bluefoxdrivein.com. To learn more about visiting Whidbey Island, go to whidbeycamanoislands.com.
Rodeo Drive-In, Bremerton WA
“Rodeo Motor Movies,” as it was originally named, opened with a slew of other drive-ins in 1949. As part of the overall United Drive-In Chain, the Rodeo Drive-In served as a massive entry into Washington State’s list of drive-ins. With 3 screens and a 1,000-car capacity, the Rodeo Drive-In is the biggest of its kind in Washington and one of the biggest in the Northwest.
Even with three different screens, the Rodeo Drive-In fills up quickly, so make sure to get there early. The cinema’s playground serves as a great way to get the kids’ energy out while waiting for dusk.
99W Drive-In, Newburg OR
As with many drive-ins, the 99W Drive-In takes its name from the highway it sits on.
As a registered historic place, the 99W Drive-In enjoys the protection of the town surrounding it, ensuring light pollution from the encircling businesses do not obscure your cinema experience. Family-owned for generations, its current owner has been enjoying films there since he was young.
Like many drive-ins, each showing has two films, generally a child’s film debuting before playing the more mature feature film. The 99W drive-in regularly sells out on Saturday nights, so make sure to get there early to guarantee your spot.
Spud Drive-In, Driggs ID
In tandem with its name, the Spud Drive-In’s immediate impression will come from the massive potato sculpture sitting on a flat-bed truck. Unlike many drive-ins, the Spud serves as the main venue for films in its surrounding community and was one of the first drive-ins to convert to a digital projector.
Be sure to complement the movie with a Gladys Burger (named after a former owner with a knack for drive-in cuisine) from the concession stand. The concession area embodies the era of the drive-in’s heyday. LP covers line the walls of the shop and the ceiling itself is covered in vinyl from old discs.
Amusement Park Drive-In, Billings MT
Much of the Amusement Park Drive-In’s equipment came from an abandoned theater. Unlike most drive-ins, the Amusement Park Drive-In uses both sides of the screens. If you like, you can set up lawn chairs and enjoy the feature from your beach towel instead of your car.
It’s not only film equipment that migrated here, but also several different carnival rides, including a roller-coaster and a turbine ride.