Indiana drive-ins: the nostalgic treasures

Indiana's best drive-ins and everything about them you didn't know


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Indiana is the most western state that's still in the Eastern time zone, which can cause some late sunsets. At 7:30 p.m. on a Friday night, the sun is still high in the sky over Bloomington, but cars are already lining up to get first choice parking at the Starlite Drive-In.

While the sun is pelting down an early-evening 85-degree heat, owner Mark Freeman — and what seems like his entire extended family — are sweating behind the concession stand. His wife and kids, plus his sons' best friends whom he coached in football, wrestling and track, are all sporting their work uniforms for Team Starlite.

Starlite drive-in
  • Starlite drive-in

The Freeman clan are preparing for the humid summer night ahead of them. They grill burgers and hot dogs, stock the cabinets with an array of candy, replenish the syrup for fountain drinks, salt the pretzels, and of course, pop the popcorn.

It'll still be another two hours before it's dark enough to start the show, but the parking spots fill quickly. Lawn chairs unfold, mosquito spray fills the air, classic '50s radio jams fills the airs, and families toss Nerf footballs in the grassy field below the massive white screen.

And the movies?

Tonight, it's a double feature of The Angry Birds Movie and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows. Most nights the films are family-friendly, because the whole reason Freeman purchased the drive-in in 2013 was to foster that unforgettable family atmosphere.

Starlite drive-in can hold more cars than any other drive-in.
  • Starlite drive-in can hold more cars than any other drive-in.

"It was a thing to do for other families," he said. "I love the kids and bringing them out here."

RELATED: The man behind the movies at Tibbs drive-in

Whether you want a classic family outing, a private first date or a memorable night out with your closest friends, the drive-in has been a safe bet in the Hoosier state for decades. Now in 2016, the number of drive-ins has depleted to a fraction of what they once were, but that sad-sap story has been told far too many times. Rather, NUVO is here to celebrate the remaining drive-ins, and to give you a peek at that cinematic summer you've been seeking.


The Golden Era to now

Post-WWII America brought in a new generation of teenagers spoiled with a luxury not known by their parents: easy access to cars. In the 1950s, the movie and the car booms became the drive-in boom. Starting on the East Coast and heading west across the country, thousands of drive-ins flooded towns big and small. Making its way to the Midwest, it came naturally that Indiana, the Crossroads of America, the state with the most miles of major highways in the country, would be a breeding ground for drive-ins.

One of the projectors at Starlite drive-in
  • One of the projectors at Starlite drive-in

At one point, over 120 drive-ins were spread across the Hoosier state. Some towns even had multiple theaters. As the decades progressed and the world became smaller and the value of land rose, the need for all these drive-ins became a thing of the past.

Only the strong have survived, with less than 20 theaters remaining in the state.

When it comes down to the bare bones, most drive-ins are fairly similar. Of course, there has to be a screen, parking spots, a concession stand, a projector room, restrooms and an entrance/exit. In fact, most studios have made it more difficult for smaller drive-ins to have freedom choosing what films to screen. It's no coincidence half the state's drive-ins were all screening Finding Dory the same week.

RELATED: How Indiana drive-ins are making the jump to hard drives

In order to survive over the years, it takes subtle differences to stand out. For Mark Freeman and Bloomington's Starlite Drive-In, a distinct canopy of trees surrounds the theater, adding to the already-private evening. Indianapolis' Tibbs Drive-In Theatre is home to four separate screens, screening eight films a night. A large playground sits at the base of the screen at Martinsville's Centerbrook Drive-In.

A night at the drive-in is so much more than what's happening on the screen.

"There's nothing like seeing a movie under the stars, with the smell of burgers, hot dogs and fresh popcorn," said Brian Eichstaedt, the regional manager of the Huntington Twin Drive-In.

Centerbrooke drive-in
  • Centerbrooke drive-in

The future of nostalgia

Film has been, and always will be, an art of the future. The experience will always be dependent on ever-advancing technology: new cameras, new special effects, new projectors and so much more.

With the recent explosion of laptop-viewings via Netflix and Hulu, a scary conversation about the movie theater's future has begun. At what point will people get fed up paying $10 for a ticket, $7 for a popcorn and $5 for a drink, all to be consumed within a 90-minute flick? A $9.99 monthly fee grants Netflix users hundreds upon hundreds of films and TV shows, after all — and all of those can be viewed from the comfort of your home, your bed or basically anywhere with Wi-Fi.

Drive-ins already have enough trouble staying open and competing with indoor theaters. This makes their case seem only bleaker.

  • Centerbrooke drive-in

Terry Ellett, who saw his first drive-in movie back in 1963, said: "Everybody's going to be whining and crying when their drive-in closes. Well, you should've come out more and supported it."

The future may be brighter than you think. For the drive-ins that have survived into the digital age, business has recently been good.

RELATED: Bond, family bond: The father-son tradition at the Starlite drive-in

"I think it's a favorite pastime," said Tyler Tharpe, owner of Martinsville's Centerbrook Drive-In. "It's part of the community. There would be a gaping hole here without it."

Tharpe recently invested in a new digital projector, proving his confidence in the business and the necessity drive-ins play in Hoosier lives.

  • Centerbrooke drive-in

When Parker Beauchamp heard Wabash's 13-24 Drive-In was going to be torn down, he couldn't stand the thought of losing it. So he bought it in 2011, and with help from the Honeywell Foundation revamped the drive-in and brought it into the 21st century, while maintaining its historic charm.

"It connects you to another time," he said. "It's wholesome and it just keeps rolling. The reason people are nostalgic is because it's cool. Things that aren't cool don't make it."

  • Centerbrooke drive-in

And they've definitely made it. We're still rolling up to the ticket booth and sneaking in beers. The 13-24 Drive-In has been a staple of Wabash's weekend life for over 60 years.

"I hope our little drive-in can make it a long, long time," Beauchamp said. "Every year it gets a little bit better. I'm not out of money yet, and hopefully I don't run out, so we can just keep going."

  • Centerbrooke drive-in

Although the first drive-in theater sprung up in Camden, New Jersey, drive-ins belong to the Midwest, and the Midwest belongs to drive-ins. Hoosiers have spent their fair share of nights lit up by headlights and projectors. Our farmer hands have been dirtied by soil in the morning and popcorn butter in the evening. We've shared kisses with both loved ones and mosquitos alike, while generation-defining films flashed before us, with the hickeys and bug bites to prove it. As the younger kids sneak in a nap toward the end of the double feature, Mark Freeman and his family prepare for a night of cleaning the kitchen and the grounds. This place has to be spotless for tomorrow's families, friends and dates.

"We Midwesterners don't have much, but we hang onto it," Freeman said.


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