02 Sep The drive-in theater is classic Americana
Imagine a warm summer night at a drive-in movie theater.
The crickets are chirping along the edge of the car park while a soft breeze drifts through your open window and the smell of warm popcorn fills your car.
Pretty idyllic, right? The drive-in is a piece of authentic Americana, a made-in-the-USA idea that first combined our love of cars and film when both were in their earliest days. The earliest drive-ins, according to the New York Film Academy, rolled onto the scene in the early 1910s, but it wasn’t until 1933 that we saw the first patented drive-in open up in New Jersey.
From then on, the model came to be a summer staple across the country. During the 1950s and 60s, the height of the drive-in era, there were supposedly 6,000 American theaters in operation, most in suburban or rural areas. In this bygone era when drive-ins roamed the earth, moviegoers could swing through places like the 2,500-car All-Weather Drive-In Theater. A 1957 edition of Popular Science describes this ultramegaplex as “sprawled over 28 acres” in Copiague, New York, as part of an entertainment mecca that also featured an amusement park, cafeteria and trolley that shuttled people around the complex. There was even an indoor movie theater that could seat 1,200 people in times of inclement weather.
PopSci didn’t mention how many screens this place had, but we’d be curious to know.
Alas, nowadays the drive-in has gone the way of tail fins and white wall tires, driven to endangered status by the rise of home entertainment, sprawling development and economy cars. There are only about 300 drive-ins left in operation nationwide, with Oregon down to three — a considerable decline from its one-time high of more than 70.
But! According to a 2016 reader vote from USA Today, Oregon is home to the best remaining American drive-in. That would be the 99W in Newberg, just about a half-hour drive south of Portland, a single-screen joint in operation since 1953.
Where else can you watch the latest Fast & Furious, in your car, in a historic American theater? Nowhere, that’s where! And if you’re feeling up for a roadtrip as summer winds itself into fall, you can put a few more miles on and head out to our other two drive-ins. Those would be out in La Grande, an hour west of Pendleton, and up in Milton-Freewater, which is just over the border from lovely Walla-Walla, Washington.
Just as the dawn of Netflix didn’t mean the end of the drive-in, neither does the end of summer mean the end of your adventures on the road. Get out there and see the best our region has to offer — just be sure to visit Scrubby’s when you’re done to get back that city shine.