My parents inflicted a succession of ugly, misshapen station wagons upon us hapless children during my formative years. The one I remember most vividly was a putrid shade of pale yellow, appeared longer than a school bus, and was known as “the Tank.” It was in the Tank (the way back- station wagons in those days had a third bench seat that faced the rear view window) at six years of age that I first encountered the shadowy, wonderful world of the drive-in movie theater.
That was as close as I got to a drive-in for another decade, and that drive-in (the Hi Way Drive-In), sadly, was torn down.
America is a land of imitators in many aspects, certainly in our architecture. But our love affair with the car spawned a whole pantheon of related roadside-architecture, and drive-in movie theaters are, to me, more American than apple pie. The drive-in was no fluke or accident, but a calculated (and patented) invention conceived by Richard M. Hollingshead, Jr., a native of New Jersey.
In the 1930s, Hollingshead began experimenting with showing movies outside – with a projector placed on the hood of his car, he would show the movie on his garage. His early efforts seized upon two things Americans loved and were loathe to part with even during the grim Depression years: cars and movies. Hollingshead’s 1933 patent outlined the following key elements: “a location in a field (preferably by a highway), a screen facing the field and shielded by a large wind-resistant ‘screen house’, a series of inclined ramps radiating out in a semicircle around the screen, and a projection booth located at a suitable distance from the screen.”
It took the boom years following World War II for the drive-in theater to take root in the American psyche. Only a handful existed across the country in 1946, but by 1950, there were more than 1,700 drive-ins sprouting along America’s growing network of roads and highways.
Kentucky certainly was not a straggler in adopting the drive-in trend in the post-war period. There were only 16 drive-in theaters in the Bluegrass in 1948, but a decade later that number had jumped to around 117 – almost as many drive-ins as Kentucky counties. That year – 1958 – represented the height of the popularity of the drive-in; numbers began to decline in the years afterwards. Television bears some of the blame, but the real culprit is economy and maintenance. Drive-ins are seasonal creatures (so your profit comes only during parts of the year), and as land near urban centers became less available and more expensive, the drive-in was not considered the highest and best use of the land.
According to various on-line sources, Lexington boasted three drive-in theaters at one time. Alas, none remain. The three closest drive-ins (at least to me – some may argue with my choices) are the Judy, in my hometown of Mt. Sterling, Kentucky; the Skyvue, in Winchester, Kentucky; and the Bourbon Drive-in in Paris, Kentucky.
The Judy and the Bourbon Drive-Ins are both still open and operating, and although Skyvue is closed, I’ve heard hopeful rumors that it will reopen soon. A plethora of websites, including Drive-Ins.com and driveinmovie.com, contain drive-in movie theater information, background, and location by state.
So inject a little history, roadside architecture, and mid-century romance into your summer – load the family into the car, and get to a drive-in! I imagine the experience will be just as exhilarating even if you lack a truly grotesque and embarrassing behemoth of a station wagon.
 Chester H. Liebs. Main Street to Miracle Mile American Roadside Architecture. (Boston: New York Graphic Society Book, 1985), 153.