By Christy Heitger-Ewing, Freelance Writer
On June 6, 1933, the first drive-in movie theatre opened in Camden, New Jersey, the brainchild of Richard Hollingshead Jr. For decades, it was the thing to do on a Saturday night.
According to Ed Quilling, owner of Tibbs Drive-in Theatre in Indianapolis, in its heyday, there were over 5,000 such theatres in operation across the country.
Today, that number has dropped to around 400. Though 10 still exist in the Hoosier state, Tibbs is the only one left in Indy. And it’s wildly popular!
In fact, Quilling has noticed more traffic now than when he first bought the place in 1995. On average, he estimates 1,000 to 1,100 cars come through on a weekend summer night, equating to roughly 2,500 people.
Some patrons bring blankets and bug spray and spread out beneath the stars. Others park their pick-up trucks backwards and relax on a sofa. Though June and July are the peak months, the size of the crowd depends on the featured pictures.
For instance, when the thriller “It” was released last September, they were packed more than on a midsummer] weekend. Baby Boomers recall when every weekend was crowded, regardless of the show.
“Some of my best childhood memories are times spent at the drive-in where my brother and I would play on the playground in our jammies, then go back to the car to watch the movies and eat popcorn,” says Laurie Pellerite. Westfield resident Amy Jones, whose first drive-in experience was at the Shadeland Theatre to see “Cinderella,” also distinctly recalls the joy of the salty treat/comfy car combo. “It was the one-and-only time I remember eating popcorn in my dad’s car!” she says.
Though these days folks can watch movies at home on their televisions or just about anywhere on their phones or tablets, the fact is that people love to take in a flick amidst the great outdoors. “Which is better to look at?” asks Quilling. “A small computer or a 120-by-60-foot screen?”
Loyal patrons regularly thank Quilling for remaining open so that they can keep the traditions going. Zionsville resident Carrie Shepard Davenport equates the experience with pillows, blankets and a station wagon.
“We were always in our pajamas as we drove around to find a clip-on speaker that worked,” she says. Boomer Diane Riggins recalls eating peel-and-eat shrimp at the drive-in. Looking back, she feels a little guilty about that. “This was in the heat of the summer,” says Riggins. “I can’t imagine what our spot smelled like the next night!”