Last Screens Standing: A Night at the Drive-In | Midwest Living

Last Screens Standing: A Night at the Drive-In

The world has changed, but a summer night at the drive-in has not. Thank goodness.

Going to the drive-in feels like quite a relic when you can get better sound and visuals on the phone in your back pocket. But let’s be real. The movie was never the main attraction. That’s not a crack about teen hormones—though certainly, a veil of flickery darkness was part of the allure. Nope, watching a film under the stars is simply summer encapsulated: The salt-smoke aroma of hot dogs and bubbly slurp of icy sodas. Frisbees flying before the show. Fireflies blinking after it starts. A long, lazy fade into night. And—a hangover from childhood—the blissful illusion that between June and September, bedtimes don’t matter.

Vali-Hi Drive-In

Vali-Hi Drive-In; photo by Ackerman + Gruber

Everyone knows the number of drive-in theaters has dwindled, but the 325 or so that remain are holding fast, prolonging the sunset on an iconic American pastime. Most are humble family-run affairs and, admittedly, an eyesore during the day. But for a few months each year, they’re our magic-makers.

1. Harvest Moon Twin Drive-In, Gibson City, Illinois

Harvest Moon Twin Drive-In

Harvest Moon Twin Drive-In; photo by Jason Lindsey

This 1950s hot spot in central Illinois survived a tornado, plus a brief closure in the 1980s. It opens earlier in spring than many, and its two screens boast ultra-high definition imaging. Most showings are single-feature, but you can rent lawn games to extend the pre-film fun. Don’t Miss A monthly classic car night and occasional free dog treats with admission.

2. Valle Drive-In, Newton, Iowa

Valle Drive-In

Valle Drive-In; photo by Jay Wilde

You can admire stars on-screen anywhere. But low light pollution reveals a twinkling sky above the rustling cornfields around Iowa’s oldest drive-in (celebrating 70 years this summer). Tickets cost less than a seat at the multiplex, even with a trip to the concession stand.  Don’t Miss Vintage ads before the film and liberal rules that allow for toting booze (within reason).

3. Vali-Hi Drive-In, Lake Elmo, Minnesota

Vali-Hi Drive-In

Vali-Hi Drive-In; photo by Ackerman + Gruber

This cash-only joint still has a few of the retro, clip-on-the-window radio speakers for your car. The largest of Minnesota’s drive-ins, the Vali-Hi sells out its 800 spots most nights, perhaps because it offers an irresistible deal: $8.50 for a triple feature that runs until nearly sunrise. Don’t Miss $1 hot dogs and policies permitting you to bring a grill for dinner (or a midnight snack).

4. Cherry Bowl Drive-In Theatre, Honor, Michigan

Look for a classic Corvette replica in the diner at the center of this family-oriented theater reaching its 65th birthday this year. Owner Laura Clark doesn’t show R-rated movies, and she cracks down on teenagers caught smooching in the front seat. Don’t Miss Delicious pepperoni pizza, plus a 1953 popcorn popper and condiment dispensers.

5. 66 Drive-In Theatre, Carthage, Missouri

One of just a few drive-ins left on Route 66, the site was once reduced to an auto-salvage yard. Now it revels again in Americana: original neon sign and frame for the screen, and at intermission, the cartoon is the same one seen in Grease.  Don’t Miss Throwback nights, with film standards like Jaws, The Sandlot and Back to the Future.

6. Ford Drive In, Dearborn, Michigan

The Ford Drive In was once the world’s largest outdoor theater, with nine screens and room for 3,000 cars. The Fort Lauderdale Swap Shop and Thunderbird Drive In holds the title now, but the Ford is still a monster, with five screens and 1,500 parking spots.

How to Play It Cool at the Drive-In 

Haven’t done this for a few decades—or ever? Read on. 

Don’t Be Late Arrive early to snag a good spot and picnic. (Note: Some places charge a small fee for outside food.) Go to the snack stand or restroom before intermission to avoid crazy lines.

Bring Lawn Chairs Watching from a sedan backseat is no fun. But even folks with pickup beds often set up seats for comfier viewing and tailgating. (Park as far back in your slot as possible to leave room.) 

Pack Smart Blankets. Bug spray. A hidden six-pack (shh, you didn’t hear it from us). And maybe a battery-operated radio to tune in the sound, if you don’t want to drain your car’s juice.

Mind the Lights Check your manual for how to turn off auto headlights while using the radio. And if you dash early, keep them off and drive slowly until your car is away from the screen.


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