Editor’s note:Have you noticed lately that bits of the past are creeping into the present? We’re gardening more, going to drive-in movies, spending time with nature, putting jigsaw puzzles together. We are finding that these traditional pastimes are somewhat calming in this time of COVID-19. Weelunk’s series, “Bygone Comebacks,” will take a look at some of the ways we’ve been slowing down. Today’s post looks at drive-in movie theatres and their return as the perfect social distancing activity.
As a 90’s kid, drive-in movie theatres bring up so many fun memories. I’m not sure if it was the extra buttery popcorn or that I could wear my pajamas and snuggle into a sleeping bag from the comfort of my parents’ old van but it was a beloved summertime staple in our household. While I can’t recall many of the movies I watched at the drive-in as a kid, I can vividly recall how it felt – The excitement of going out after dark, the cool-but-muggy summer air, and the excitement of watching the cute little hot dog jump into its bun during the intermission ad. It’s an experience that simply cannot be duplicated in today’s megaplex movie theatres. While I was lucky enough to have at least one drive-in theatre around when I was growing up, the industry was certainly not as popular as it was in its heyday.
The Rise and Fall of the Drive-In
Although the first patented drive-in theatre opened its doors in 1933, they were most popular in the 1950s and 1960s, especially in more rural communities. People flocked to the drive-in at that time because of the family-friendly atmosphere. In fact, the slogan of the first drive-in theatre was “The whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are.” Drive-ins were also a fun way to show-off the bold, classic American cars that were popular during that era.
The popularity of drive-in theatres in West Virginia peaked in the mid-1950s, with having nearly 75 theatres across the state. Here in Wheeling, the Downs Auto Drive-In on Wheeling Island and Grove Drive-In in Elm Grove were two popular destinations. Just south of Wheeling was also home to the Glen Dale Drive-In, which was still in operation through 2012.
Sadly, by the 1970s the allure of the drive-in began to wane for many reasons. The most obvious drawback was that drive-in theatres could only operate during certain times of the year and was dependant on good weather. Also, with a rise in oil prices, many folks chose to downsize their vehicles to save money, which made for a less-comfortable movie-going experience. Furthermore, with a growing interest in suburban living, it became more profitable for drive-in owners to sell their land to developers looking to build malls and other new construction. These factors led to many drive-in theatres closing their doors. Currently, there are around 300 traditional theatres that remain in the United States, six of those are located here in West Virginia.
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The Drive-In Makes a Comeback
With the coronavirus pandemic prompting us to get creative with how we spend our leisure time, drive-in theaters are making a comeback. This socially-distanced, family-friendly activity has ignited a spark of interest in this bygone pastime. While there are no longer any traditional drive-ins here in Wheeling anymore, there are plenty of options in town and nearby to enjoy next time you want to feel the nostalgia of a drive-in movie.
Oglebay Drive-In Movies
Wheeling Park screens free drive-in movies at the White Palace on Fridays at dusk. Guests can grab a parking spot in front of the Wheeling Park White Palace to enjoy a free, family-friendly film from the comfort and safety of their own vehicle. To find out which movie they are screening next, follow Wheeling Park on Facebook, where they post clues to challenge you to guess which movie they are screening. The next drive-in movie is set for Friday, Sept. 25. For more information, visit oglebay.com.
For a more traditional drive-in experience, you can make the short trip up to Wintersville, OH to catch a movie at the Winter Drive-In. It’s been in operation since 1969 and boasts four digital projection screens operating from April through October. Playing a mix of classic and newer films, there’s something for everyone to enjoy. With Halloween just a few weeks away, get in the spirit with films such as It (2017), Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrents (2002) and Gremlins(1984). Check out what’s currently showing and coming soon, along with updated COVID policies by visiting winterdrivein.com.
Walmart Drive-In Series
Yes, even WalMart is getting in on the drive-in action! In response to the coronavirus, WalMart started a Summer Drive-In Movie series to give families a safe way to enjoy a night out of the house. While our local WalMart isn’t one of the current participating locations, those interested can take a mini-roadtrip to check out a movie in Morgantown, WV and West Mifflin, PA. Visit thewalmartdrivein.com for showtimes and more information.
• Alex Panas is the Program Manager for Wheeling Heritage, where she works with artists, small business owners, and community stakeholders to provide technical assistance and create meaningful programs that enhance Wheeling. She also serves as the managing editor for Weelunk. Alex lives in St. Clairsville with her husband where they raise four cats and four spunky backyard chickens.