1601 E. Church St., Aurora; Open Friday, Saturday and Sunday from Memorial Day to Labor Day; Friday and Saturday pre-Memorial Day and post-Labor Day. Free for kids 5 and younger, $8 for older kids and adults.
It’s mid-August, the time of year when summer enters its late stages, and the humidity has become a bit of an afterthought. Cars lined inside, around and outside the Sunset Drive-In Theatre are here to watch Jason Statham fight a killer Megalodon shark.
Owner Larry Marks’s first stint with this 68-year-old theater began as a high school graduate in 1965. In 1977, Marks’s family bought the drive-in, and he’s been the owner ever since.
I get to the theater fairly early to take it all in—this is my first stop on my drive-in tour, and it had been a while since I had visited one. I walk around a bit, taking in the enveloping humidity that comes with the territory of an August night. I take note of the candy sharks swimming in the specialty drinks prepared for the night—part of the theatre’s niche is to stylize each weekend around the movies it shows. This was Jared Evans’ idea. Evans is the defacto creative director of the theater, patrolling along with his father Ron. Both have been a part of the theater for a large part of their lives—Ron has been coming to the theater since he was 4 years old. “It’s an atmosphere you really can’t explain,” he says.
17231 Old 66 Blvd., Carthage; Open Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday from Memorial Day to the beginning of school and Friday, Saturday and Sunday early spring and late fall. Free for kids 5 and younger, $4 for kids 6–12, $8 for adults.
There is a palpable irony in a drive-in theater getting its namesake from perhaps the most American of highways, one that has long been symbolic for America’s openness and endless possibilities. But 66 Drive-In Theatre, recognized on the National Register of Historic Places, wears its Americana on its sleeves. The original neon sign from 1949 still stands. There is also a red sign painted onto the back of the single screen, loudly announcing the name of the theater. If you’re driving by, it’s unlikely you’ll miss it. Taken together—the drive-in, the neon sign, the two-lane road the theater sits just off of—it’s a country song waiting to be written.
The promise of something either different or familiar is what keeps people coming to Nathan and Amy McDonald’s theater. The McDonalds have owned the theater since 2017. Before taking over, Nathan used to work security during showings to supplement his job as a policeman.
66 Drive-In Theatre is also open four nights a week for a large part of its open season instead of the typical three nights. Nathan made this changes to help customers who planned their night around a movie. Even in the age of Netflix and air-conditioned movie theaters, 66 Drive-In is thriving. Its success is in part thanks to its creative and flexible owner who isn’t afraid to make tweaks to the formula to keep things fresh. If he sees a need or a new opportunity, he takes action. “We’ve been able to bypass [streaming] because of the experience that we give,” Nathan says. “You just want to be a part of it. In the scope of drive-ins, ours is the one on Route 66, so it adds that piece of that historical landmark.”
16657 Highway B, Houston; Open Friday and Saturday, April through October. $5.50 for kids 12 and younger, $6.50 for adults.
It’s important to emphasize that those who attend drive-ins truly want to be there. There’s no half-embracing the quirks of the experience; you know what you’re getting into. In the case of Phoenix Drive-In Theater, you have a choice between inside and out. The theater is a hybrid— the traditional indoor space has been open since the 1950s. Its theaters are full of seats pulled from an era when people still had dial-up. Improvements have and are being made, but if it’s recliners the people of Houston seek, they’ll have to drive about 50 miles to Rolla to get them. Since this is the only theater within considerable distance, if they want to see a movie, this is the place to do it.
Behind the indoor facility is the drive-in, which has been in operation since the 1970s. It has different summits for cars to perch on. This creates a unique viewing experience—imagine what it’d be like to watch a movie about a fourth of the way up a ski lift. It’s a Friday in mid-October, and turnout is not what it might have been a month ago. This is a high school football town, and when weighing a rainy night of movie-watching and football under the lights, it’s not going to be much of a contest. Jen Shelton doesn’t mind all that much, acknowledging that such are the spoils of small-town life. Shelton and her husband, Josh, purchased the theater in June of 2018, so 2019 will mark their first full summer at the helm. “We love the theater,” says Jen, whose family helps out on show nights. “It’s not just a job. We’ve wanted to buy it for a while, and we just waited until the time was right.”
Shelton added arcade games and air hockey, though she acknowledges that the improvements she’d like to make are a work in progress. It could be argued, however, that the theater being mostly untouched adds to its authenticity and creates a portal to the past.—Evan Greenberg