Randy and Debrean Loy love drive-in movie theaters a lot—enough to have endured Armageddon four times in seven days during a far-flung road trip last year to visit drive-ins. “It was awesome on the big screen,” Randy Loy acknowledges. Still, for the Loys, the film was a secondary consideration. “We wanted to drop by to see the theater owners,” he says.
The Loys, of Germantown, are seeking to preserve the drive-in’s status as an American icon, a magical place of quick gropes and big screens that has been nearly killed off by a combination of hard-to-refuse offers from real estate developers and the growth of video rentals in the past two decades. The Washington area has gone completely dark: It’s been without a drive-in for about 15 years. (The closest one to D.C. is Bengie’s, in Baltimore, a 700-car theater with an enormous 52-by-120-foot screen.) Yet nationwide, 524 drive-in sites—with a total of 750 screens—are still operating. (Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York count the most.)
Today’s number falls well below the 1958 high point of 4,000-plus drive-ins—but they are not in the death spiral of just a few years ago. Drive-ins, believe it or not, are in the midst of a minirenaissance. A few entrepreneurs have found enough economic upsides to build new drive-ins in places like Avon, N.Y., Alliance, Neb., and Mountainboro, Ala.
“People enjoy the environment of the drive-in—the film is important, but they also enjoy the outdoor air, the opportunity to take the family, the full-service snack bars, the playgrounds,” Randy Loy says. “You can sit outside, smoke, talk if you want. I like to describe it as a nighttime picnic with a film. People are attracted to that.”
In March, the Loys co-founded the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association, a first-of-its-kind organization, which they run from their home. Word-of-mouth recruiting has so far yielded 38 members, who own 41 drive-in theaters, including two in Canada and one in Australia; now they’re setting their sights on the other 483. The Loys (he’s a cop and she’s a medical technologist) aren’t in it for the money—there is none. They see the organization as one more manifestation of the love for alfresco cinema they developed growing up in West Virginia. Since the mid-’80s, they’ve served as self-appointed chroniclers of the form. (In 1996, they published Films, Food & Fun! A Guidebook to Operational U.S. Drive-In Theatres.)
Like the Loys, the people who run the drive-ins must have more than dollar signs in their eyes. “[Drive-ins aren’t] lucrative,” Randy Loy acknowledges. “If they were, the big chains would have stayed in. Today’s owners are people who enjoy it. They are small-time exhibitors doing a big job providing entertainment. They’re not necessarily looking to get rich.”—Louis Jacobson