For Drive-In Theaters, an Unexpected Revival Modern technology might make drive-in movie theaters seem antiquated. But between moviegoer nostalgia, theater-owner innovation and competitive pricing, the drive-in is staging something of a comeback.
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For Drive-In Theaters, an Unexpected Revival

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For Drive-In Theaters, an Unexpected Revival

For Drive-In Theaters, an Unexpected Revival

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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(Soundbite of music)


These days you can watch a movie on your computer, in a car or on a cell phone, so it may seem surprising that drive-ins are experiencing a renaissance. In the past decade, nearly a hundred drive-in movie theaters have opened or reopened. Reporter Nancy Mullane went for some fresh-air movie watching at a drive-in outside Concord, California.

NANCY MULLANE (Reporter, NPR News): It's early evening, right about dusk and out on the edge of town, just past the small airport is the Solano Drive-In Movie Theater. At 7:00 there's already a line of cars waiting to get in, even before the manager opens the box office.

Unidentified Man #1 (Solano Drive-In Movie Theater): You have two adults?

Unidentified Man #2: Yes.

Unidentified Man #1: Ok, 13.50.

MULLANE: Two young boys in the back seat are excited. Their father takes out his wallet to pay the admission. It's a bargain at $6.75 per an adult, kids under 11 are free.

Unidentified Man #1: Okay, 1.50 is your change. And you guys are gonna go straight, make a right and your radio station is 96.3 FM.

(Soundbite of a car honking)

(Soundbite of woman talking to a child)

Unidentified Woman #1: Watch out. There's someone right there.

MULLANE: Now that the sound of the movie comes through the car radio, there aren't any of those speakers on poles to negotiate. So, people park their cars everywhere. Down front by the movie screen a group of neighborhood families have parked their cars all in a row so their kids can watch tonight's movies together.

Ms. LINDA ZEIGLER: We found out about it last year, and we've been coming ever since, and I've invited my neighbors, and these are friends from school.

MULLANE: That's Linda Zeigler, one of the moms in the group. She's with her daughter, Emily.

Ms. ZEIGLER: And I love it. I grew up doing this. Coming in my pajamas and so Emily actually - you girls don't know, you're supposed to come in your pajamas.

MULLANE: As darkness falls, the massive screen lights-up, and from car radios all around, the sound of movies fills the air.

(Soundbite from a movie)

MOVIE VOICEOVER: There is a legend of a world deep within our own.

MULLANE: The Solano opened in 1964, then three years ago the company shut the drive-in movie theater down. The worn-out concession stand had gotten seedy, the parking lot potholed. Linda Alley was working in the box office the night it closed.

Ms. LINDA ALLEY (Employee, The Solano Drive-In Movie Theater): I cried. I didn't want to see it close. Nobody wants to see it closed. Everybody around here loves this place.

MULLANE: People wrote letters pleading with the Solano to reopen the drive-in. The company made an about-face and spent thousand of dollars freshening the place up. They patched the pot holes, painted the screens, and upgraded the food. Now, the Solano is open 365 days a year, rain or shine.

Professor JAN KRAWITZ (Film, Stanford University): I think drive-in theater owners have become somewhat creative to find ways to stay in business.

MULLANE: Jan Krawitz is a professor of film at Stanford University. She says sprucing them up and multitasking the land are key to 21st century drive-ins succeeding.

Professor KRAWITZ: And so you do a lot of drive-ins in California that become flea markets during the day.

MULLANE: On Sunday morning the popcorn from the movies the night before has been cleaned up, and the Solano Public Market and Swap Meet is open for business. Five thousand people have paid $1.25 to walk around and buy anything and everything from kitchen bowls to car tires.

Unidentified Boy: We love it. We come almost every weekend.

MULLANE: For $5?

Cherry Mericks says The Solano is a great market but it's better as a drive-in.

Ms. CHERRY MERICKS: You could bring your family and you can, you know, buy a big tub of popcorn and share it. And, you know, you could actually talk if you want to, you know, you don't have to hear that Shhh. You know, so, it's cool. It's very cool.

MULLANE: On April 24th, the Solano Drive-In Movie Theater is celebrating the 75th anniversary of drive-ins in America, with a free double feature, "The Wizard of Oz" and "Rebel Without a Cause." Showtime is 8:00.

Unidentified Woman #2: Good movies! (soundbite of hurray)

MULLANE: For NPR News, I'm Nancy Mullane.

(Soundbite of music)

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