At their peak popularity, drive-in theaters used to be more than just an outdoor screening.
There were more than 5,000 drive-ins scattered across the U.S. Now, reports show only around 300 drive-in theaters remain. The Huntington drive-in theater closed it’s gate when their screen blew down in a storm, but now it’s back and attracts families that drive from hours away to enjoy a break from their busy lives.
The Canten and Shady families drove from Marion, the Green family drove from Blufton, a group of Homestead high school graduates drove from Fort Wayne and Hunter and Brittney Holtzman drove from Columbia City to watch this year’s first Classic Reels night, Thursday, featuring the college cult classic Animal House.
The Cantens brought their 8-year-old granddaughter Michaela, who played by herself at the playground before the old-school movie began. They wanted her to experience an old American pastime that is beginning to slowly die out.
“All the kids her age, they don’t even know what a drive-in movie is,” Belinda Canten said. “Everything they ever see is on the TV or on their phone, so it’s like rotary dial phones, they don’t know how to work those.”
The Canten’s wanted their granddaughter to be able to tell stories about what it was really like to go to a drive-in, instead of the stereotypical depiction played in movies today.
“50 years from now, they won’t know what a drive in movie theater was,” Belinda Canten said. “She’ll be telling her grandkids, ‘well you drive into this area, park the car, get out and set in chairs as you look at this big screen and watch movies.’ They’ll have no idea what it’s like.”
Her grandfather, Thomas Canten, said he hopes the Huntington theater never closes because of the good memories he has from how drive-ins used to be a hub for local entertainment.
In Marion, daredevils leapt from a 50-foot poles into “big buckets of water,” before the main feature, and the playground became a social hour for children in the community of all ages, filling up hours before the movie with kids playing football, tag and making new friends, he said.
Police would patrol the packed house with rows of station wagons, sports cars and pickup trucks full of couples, families and friends, and in Huntington, everyone would honk their horns in unison, during intermission, creating an iconic song that slowly fizzled out over the years as drive-in theaters increasingly took down their speakers and locked their gates.
“That’s gone forever,” Thomas Canten said.
As summer heats up, more people show up. A lot of the families said it’s just a nice way to get a break from being cooped up inside and enjoy nature and company.
“Its just something different to do,” Belinda Canten said. “When you’re older, you’re not into all this electronic stuff like all these young people are and so it just gives you something to do. It’s a nice way to end the evening, outside when it’s nice.”
Hunter and Brittney Holtzman wanted to have a cheap date, so they drove in from Columbia City. Brittney grew up going to drive-ins, but Hunter hadn’t been until they began dating last year.
They said if they have a family, they hope the theater will still be around so they can pass on a part of their Indiana tradition.
“If we don’t have this, I’m going to rig something up in my backyard,” Brittney said.
“That’s how we used to do it on the farm,” Hunter said “My dad was military, so we used to get a projector from work and we would just sit outside and it was fun.”
They were happy to see that the Goodrich 7 theater invested in two new projectors and have made improvements to try and keep the theater around as long as possible.
“It just kind of died down because I never knew they were even around anymore,” he said. “You see in movies that all these people used to show up for drive-ins, but not anymore. They are dying down really fast. Times change real quick.”
But, as the sun set, the parking filled with headlights. The Holtzmans arrived nearly two hours early, but they got to enjoy a break from their full-time jobs and college courses.
They listened to the birds sing as the sun set. The parking lot filled with headlights as people rushed from all around Huntington to reminisce on earlier times, hoping to pass the tradition on before it’s too late.