Ticket to the past: In Pennsylvania, drive-in theaters still cruising along

By Kira Scammell

Two twin boys lie on a blanket with their mother, playing with toys and eating snacks from the…

Kenny Ong | Visual Editor

Dependable Drive In in Moon Township offers locals the chance to watch films outside.

Two twin boys lie on a blanket with their mother, playing with toys and eating snacks from the concession stand. As the sun begins to set, many rows in the open lot fill up with cars all facing a large screen.

It’s a Friday night at Moon Township’s Dependable Drive In, and for the Bobish family, the only thing better than a night at the drive-in theater would be more opportunities to come.

“I wish that there were more of them, that they would have more screens,” said Brittney Bobish, a 27-year-old resident of Aliquippa.

This four-screen drive-in has been in business for the last 62 years, and is one of the few original drive-ins that still exist today. Spanning 24 acres, Dependable Drive In can fit up to 500 cars. It is one of the 368 remaining drive-in theaters in the U.S., and one of 33 in Pennsylvania, according to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association, a group dedicated to keeping drive-ins a competitive sector of the motion picture industry.

Though not entirely depleted, the drive-in theater industry has suffered a significant number of closures. Compared to the industry’s pinnacle year, the number of drive-in theaters in the nation has severely declined. The first drive-in theater in the U.S. opened in 1933 in New Jersey. In 1958, there were 4,063 drive-ins scattered throughout the country. Today, it’s easy to see why drive-ins are thought of as an endangered species in the cinematic ecosystem.

On average, a handful of drive-ins close every year but not many open or reopen. While the numbers rarely increase, there is evidence that more people are going to drive-ins for their movie experiences.

“When we were young, I had a marvelous date [with my wife] at the drive-in, and I’ll never forget it. If I were still married, I’d still go,” said Jerry Wurzer, a 70-year-old resident of the North Hills. Wurzer, who was with his grandchildren at Twin Hi-Way Drive-In in Robinson, reminisced about what he liked most about the drive-in, even indulging in a couple of tales from the back seat.

“The drive-in meant something back then. We took our dates because we could sit under the stars and have a lovely evening in addition to the movie. It wasn’t always about rounding another base,” Wurzer said.

And though romance isn’t always an added incentive for the drive-in, there is one thing that many customers find pleasing: the prices.

Unlike a typical movie theater, drive-ins offer two movies for one price, which is usually around $10. Screens generally offer two screenings back-to-back that feature different movies. Movie-goers can sit through two films, a bonus for the outdoor venues.

For Bobish, the back-to-back films make going to the drive-in even more beneficial.

“I love being outside. I think it’s better than being inside. I like to get two movies, and it’s cheaper,” Bobish said.

Bobish brings her 9-year-old twin sons, Dixon and Hank, to Dependable Drive In every year for the outdoor movie experience. Though she and her two boys grew up after the peak of drive-ins, the family still enjoys the industry, especially with its low prices.

“They love the drive-in,” she said. Bobish brought her sons to Dependable Drive In to see “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” and as the twins sprawled out on their blanket, they watched the screen come to life at the outdoor movie event.

Casey Dunleavy, a senior at Clarion University, also makes frequent trips to Dependable Drive In during his summers and holidays at home in Peters Township. He takes with him nothing less than a fully-stocked cooler, a frisbee and a handful of friends. “You can bring your own food or beer if you’re discreet, and you get to see two movies for less than $10. You can’t get that anywhere else,” Dunleavy said.

Dunleavy, who has been a customer of Dependable Drive In since the age of 10, admits that he first started going to the drive-in theater with his family of seven to save money. Considering that admission is only $6.50 per person for a double feature, it’s not hard to see why. Comparatively, a single feature at a multiplex cinema costs $10.

Most drive-ins’ profits come from concession stand funds, because ticket revenue is often paid back to movie studios as “rent” for showing the films, according to the board of the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association.

Jay Glaus, the 19-year-old manager at Dependable Drive In, said Dependable doesn’t get any money from box offices because the film companies receive all of it.

While drive-ins don’t have $8 popcorn, many are home to a larger variety of concessions than standard movie theaters. Dependable Drive In offers movie-goers options such as the “dollar dog,” while Twin Hi-Way has affordable funnel cakes and whole pizzas for their guests.

But even successful drive-ins continue to have a hard time staying open, with the pressure to update technology to digital entertainment. It’s often more economical to continue to use outdated technology, which in its own way adds to the nostalgia of the drive-in theater. The FM radio signal is usually weak, the projection is crooked, the screen crackles and headlights wash out the picture as people turn on their cars. The drive-in theater isn’t perfect, but it also isn’t pretending to be.

At Dependable, Glaus works to maintain the equipment’s high technological standards.

“We take a lot of pride in this. Any time any new technology has been available, we’ve grabbed it up almost instantaneously, almost as soon as it comes out,” he said.

In order to create an atmosphere that replicates an indoor movie theater, Glaus attempts to keep high standards

“We try to keep it pretty close to an indoor. I mean, you’ll never get it entirely to an indoor, because you have the moon and you got the outside lights, but we’re really competitively close,” Glaus said.

Bobish agrees.

“With everyone’s radio blasting, it pretty much sounds like surround sound,” she said.

D. Edward Vogel, owner of Bengie’s Drive-In Theatre, still uses the original projection equipment for his jumbo 52 foot by 120 foot screen. Vogel is making plans to convert the Maryland-based drive-in to digital technology, though he admits that he will miss manually splicing film together and maintaining the equipment that he’s been familiar with for the last 50 years.

The new equipment will cost more than $175,000, but even if it seems that drive-ins are on their way out, Vogel seems to think it’s worth it.

“There is something so special about sunset to me. That moment before twilight. That even when I am not operating, I will look at that screen and my heart pines to put light up there,” Vogel said.

Vogel is also the administrative secretary for the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association. About two-thirds of drive-in theater owners belong to the association.

Vogel explained the tug of war between modern renovation and style at drive-in theaters versus yesterday’s nostalgia and charm. The latter keeps drive-ins alive because of the sentimental atmosphere, but it can hinder their success.

Additionally, Vogel said many drive-ins have traditionally been family-run businesses. Many of the owners are old enough to retire, choosing to end their businesses in an attempt to avoid spending money to update equipment they wouldn’t know how to use.

Regardless, these few remaining establishments will always be a reminder of good times and fair prices. Glaus distinguishes between indoor and outdoor movie theaters and believes that it’s necessary to establish a balance between past and present.

“We try to keep it modern but nostalgic at the same time, which is a challenge because you want to make everything modern, and you want to bring everything up to contemporary stuff. But you have to remember you’re running a drive-in,” he said. “You’re not running an indoor movie theater.”