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The Low-Cost Glories Of The Drive-In Movie

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The Low-Cost Glories Of The Drive-In Movie

The Low-Cost Glories Of The Drive-In Movie

The Low-Cost Glories Of The Drive-In Movie

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

With tickets to The Little Mermaid on Broadway fetching $121 a piece, NPR's Robert Smith opts to take the family to a drive-in movie instead. He learns that the low-cost option, complete with tiki torches and fireflies, might just be more fun. Robert Smith/NPR hide caption

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Robert Smith/NPR

We all have a dream vacation. But this year most of us are settling for an economic-reality vacation.

NPR has assigned reporters to consider some classic holiday trips and design their own frugal version. NPR's Robert Smith wanted to take his family to see The Little Mermaid on Broadway. When he saw the price tag, he instead loaded up his Honda Civic and headed to the drive-in.

What's Your 'Cheap Thrill'?

Do you have ideas for how to have fun on your days off where you live, or in a place you've visited? Are there free or low-cost art museums, exhibits, theater outings, recreation opportunities, beaches, dining and lodging or other amusement options that you want to let your fellow Americans know about? Tell us here, and we'll add some of your submissions to our map.

Since my assignment is to go to a drive-in-movie on the cheap, I've got bad news for the family: Somebody has to get in the trunk. Any volunteers?

Guess it's me. Argh.

But I only last two minutes in the trunk. Turns out, I'm not that cheap.

We've got to try plan B: Honesty.

"How many?" the ticket seller at the drive-in asks. Two adults and two children. "That will be $20."

Now I feel bad for trying to cheat the nice folks at the Cumberland Drive-In Theatre. The giant screen is tucked into the cornfields outside of Newville, Pa. It vibes nostalgia: The playground at the base of the screen, the snack bar, even the old-timey announcements.

"Good evening folks, and a hearty welcome to our drive-in theater. We've a wonderful evening's entertainment lined up for you. One that will provide several hours of pleasurable relaxation and diversion for you and your family."

Too late. My daughters are already asleep in the back seat. But that's one of the beauties of a cheap thrill. If I had paid the $121 per seat for The Little Mermaid on Broadway, I'd be prying those cute eyes open right now. As it is, I can tilt the seat back and chill.

"Did you fail to dress up for tonight's show? No tie? An old shirt and slacks? A housedress? Well, don't give it a thought," comforts the announcement. "We're glad you came as you are."

Big voice dude isn't kidding around. The drive-in is all about re-creating your home in a parking lot. People have brought recliners and tiki torches.

Katy Fike is setting up her stereo system.

"And the speakers even detach for surround sound, too," Fike says.

This is essential, Fike explains, since the first movie in the double feature is Harry Potter. Since it's a long movie, Roxanne Dennis came prepared.

"We brought fried chicken. Three different kinds of cookies. And we brought cheese curls and pretzels and peanuts," Dennis says.

You see, the drive-in isn't about being passively entertained. You make your own fun here.

Some boys toss a football under the big screen. Teenagers hog the swing sets. Fireflies blink in the trees. Harry Potter is almost an afterthought.

To tell you the truth, I have no idea what's going on in this movie.

But that's not a problem at the drive-in. You can always wander over to the snack bar and peek into the projection booth.

Jay Mowry, whose father built the place in 1952, is there. He shows me the big spinning reel of film — it's the size of a truck tire.

"It comes in big canisters, weighs a ton," Mowry says.

"Do any horrible, unethical people ever try to sneak in the trunk?" I ask. "Does that ever happen?"

"That happens probably every night?" Mowry says.

But he tells me a secret. The movie companies take such a large percentage of the ticket price that it almost doesn't matter if people sneak in — as long as they spend their money at the concession stand.

So as penance, I force myself to order a pulled pork sandwich, hot dog, French fries and a giant soda — all for $10.

I'll enjoy my delicious punishment back at the car.