Felton, Delaware: Last Drive-In Theater Still Showing Outdoor Movies in Felton, Delaware
As Amanda Burck, 14, of Ridgely, Md., gathered with her family in the Diamond State Drive-In Theater's snack bar for popcorn, candy, cheeseburgers and ice cream last Friday night, it could have been an autumn evening in 1967. "I'm, like, really excited," Burck said. "I've seen them on TV and heard stories, but I've never seen an actual drive-in." Diamond State, a 300-car theater on U.S. 13, is the last drive-in remaining in Delaware. As the 2007 season winds down, theater operators Donald Brown, 44, of Felton, and Patricia Creigh, 36, of Lincoln, Del., are uncertain if their piece of post-war Americana will be around much longer. The theater's founder and owner died in June, raising questions about whether the heirs will renew the lease on the 8-acre commercial property when it expires in 2008. "We haven't made a final decision," said Robert Steele of Coatesville, Pa. His parents, the late Mildred and Albert Steele, developed the theater in 1947. He has a written appraisal from Dover Consulting Service valuing the commercially zoned land at $1.2 million. If the property is developed, the Felton drive-in would go the way of many of the nation's outdoor theaters since the 1980s, said Susan Sanders, co-author of The American Drive-In Movie Theatre. The biggest reason for the decline of drive-ins has been the rising value of the land, although escalating insurance costs and high property taxes haven't helped, said Sanders, of Grapevine, Texas. The downtrend of drive-ins has had little to do with their popularity, according to Jennifer Sherer Janisch of Las Vegas, co-founder of the website www.drive-ins.com. Many were still profitable or even selling out when they closed, Janisch said. At their peak in 1960, there were at least 5,000 drive-in theaters throughout the country, Sanders said. Today, there are roughly 400 drive-ins in the nation, Janisch said. The number, she said, has stayed fairly stable in recent years, and there are still new ones opening. Texas has been a hot spot for new theaters in the past two years, she said. In early September, James Chenault, 47, of Tyler, Texas, opened the Sky-Vue Drive-In Theater in Tyler with his brother-in-law and nephew. The total cost to open the theater, including the 35- by 70-foot screen, was about $300,000, he said. Chenault said they invested heavily in the food operation, a known profit center for drive-ins. Not only does Sky-Vue make its own pizzas, the owners spent $25,000 for two popcorn machines. Chenault said he's bullish about the future of Sky-Vue because his research shows "you can make a pretty good living." The first drive-in movie theater was opened in 1933 by Richard Hollingshead in Camden, N.J., who wanted to attract customers to his auto parts company and gas station at night, Sanders said. His experiments in outdoor movies included hanging a sheet between trees. More than a dozen drive-ins popped up before World War II, but the real growth came in the 1950s as families moved to suburbia, Sanders said. Kenneth Steele writes in a history of the Diamond State Drive-In that the original sound system used by his parents was two 24-inch bullhorns. On a clear night, the sound could be heard 2 miles away. The Steeles quickly added the legendary in-car speakers. Today, most outdoor theaters broadcast the soundtrack through the car radio or a portable radio, although some theaters retain the old window speakers to add to the atmosphere, Janisch said. Bill Walton and his wife, Paula Smith, of Felton take their daughters, Nolah, 8, and Aylish, 11, to the Diamond State Drive-In once every two or three weeks. The family comes prepared with pizza or fried chicken, a cooler full of sodas, chairs and sleeping bags. The girls usually bring pajamas. The family is so attached to the drive-in, they fantasize about winning the lottery and buying it. They say they also dream about reopening the closed roller rink on the property and decorating the restrooms in the 1950s style. "We'd have Pink Ladies and poodle skirts," like the movie Grease, Aylish Walton said. Steele said he and his brother Robert plan to reach a decision about the drive-in before the end of the year. Brown said if he and Creigh are unable to renew their lease they will try to open a new one in western Sussex County, Del. Since its rebirth in 1995, the Felton theater has largely been profitable, with the exception of the first few years, Brown said. At its peak in 2004, ticket sales totaled in the low six-figure range, Brown said. "It's a small business. We're able to make a living from it," he said.