It’s hard to believe now, but more than 100 drive-in theaters once existed on or near Route 66.
The number now is seven.
That factoid and many more are found in Michael Kilgore’s well-researched and brisk-reading “Drive-Ins of Route 66: Yesterday and Today” (Neon Jukebox, 176 pages, illustrated, e-book available).
Kilgore is the big kahuna at the drive-in theater website, Carload.com, and holds journalism experience, giving him an edge on his research. If you’re looking for information about current and former drive-ins on Route 66, you won’t find a better source, save for possibly a deep and laborious dive into the Cinema Treasures website. (Disclosure: I gave Kilgore’s book a once-over before its final editing and publication.)
Kilgore gives concise and separate histories of Route 66 and drive-in theaters. The first drive-in was patented in New Jersey in 1933. But the trend didn’t get going until after World War II when — ironically enough — when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled its basic design couldn’t be patented. By 1955, more than 4,300 such theaters had sprouted across the U.S.
The slow demise of many drive-ins occurred due to several factors — the rise of television and VCRs, the launching of Home Box Office in 1972, suburbia driving up the value of land (including drive-ins) and the implementation of Daylight Saving Time shaving off an hour of evening darkness. I noticed in the listings a lot of drive-ins perished during the 1980s.
Drive-ins saw a small renaissance starting about 2000 with an increasing number of family-friendly movies, FM transmitters for better sound and the rise of 1950s nostalgia. That improvement in fortunes enabled many theaters to survive the expensive conversion to digital projection mandated by the movie studios.
Kilgore’s criteria for a theater to be listed in the book is one that operated during U.S. 66’s existence located within 2 1/2 miles of the highway.
The format of the listings is by Route 66 towns from east to west, the date the theater opened, when it closed (if applicable) and narratives of each one. Kilgore used online newspaper archives and contemporary trade magazines to track down information, but he acknowledges details remain scant for some theaters. Kilgore said he’ll update his book if new information emerges; he urges anyone with updates to email [email protected]
Because no one could patent the drive-in, many operators added unique wrinkles. The Phil-Kron Drive-In in Bloomington, Illinois, had a nice restaurant at the base of its screen. Ronnie’s Drive-In in St. Louis contained an elaborate playground with pony rides, a miniature train and even a bear cub.
Then there’s Cinema Autoscopes, a now-bizarre-sounding concept that earns its own chapter in the book. Those once were in Joplin, Missouri, and Albuquerque.
Unless you’re a drive-in junkie, you’ll probably be muttering, “I didn’t know” while reading the book. I lived in Oklahoma for nearly a decade, and I never knew the Rig Drive-In operated in Davenport. Ditto for the Bearcat Drive-In in Erick and the unfortunately named Squaw Drive-In in El Reno.
A few drive-ins exist in obscurity because they were short-lived. The I-44 Drive-In in Valley Park, Missouri, lasted less than a decade because it was squeezed between a landfill, railroad tracks and the Meramec River. Another, the Sooner Drive-In in Miami, Oklahoma, didn’t last a year because it sat in a flood-prone area.
It’s notable several of the still-running Route 66 drive-ins — 66 Drive-In in Carthage, Missouri; Route 66 Drive-In in Springfield, Illinois; Admiral Twin Drive-In in Tulsa; Tascosa Drive-In in Amarillo; and Skyline Drive-In in Barstow, California — improbably were revived after years of closure. Perhaps that’s a testament to the nostalgic durability of drive-ins and the appeal of Route 66.
Details about some of these theaters are so sparse but so intriguing, it wouldn’t be surprising if a few roadies go to their local libraries to find more information about them and bolster Kilgore’s book.
(Book cover image of “Drive-Ins of Route 66: Yesterday and Today” courtesy of the author)