Historic Drive-In Theaters Offer Entertainment Under the Stars

Last year, as the pandemic limited indoor movie theater watching options, many movie-goers rediscovered the fun of open-air theaters.

Opened in 1955, the Holiday Drive-in near Rockport may be Indiana’s largest drive-in theater: it added a sixth screen in 2016. (Photo: Candice Croix)

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In 1932, Richard Hollingshead nailed a bed sheet between two trees in his New Jersey backyard and lined up cars in the driveway to watch a movie projected from a 1928 Kodak projector mounted on the hood of his car. After vigorous testing (he used a sprinkler to imitate rain), Hollingshead patented his idea, and the drive-in theater was born.

At one time, more than 4,000 drive-ins dotted the U.S. landscape. Families, couples, and carloads of teenagers pulled up in front of giant screens on warm nights to take in the latest films, cartoons, and concession stand promos featuring boxes of popcorn marching along to catchy tunes.

In the 1970s and ’80s, new entertainment options, including multiplex theaters, pulled patrons away from drive-ins, forcing many out of business. Later, the expensive upgrade to digital projection systems required to show first-run movies became another financial obstacle.

Last year, however, as the pandemic limited indoor movie theater watching options, many movie-goers rediscovered the fun of open-air theaters.

Today, Indiana has about 20 drive-ins according to the website, including Wabash’s historic 13-24 Drive In. In 1949, Truman Rembusch began building a drive-in northeast of town, with a ticket booth and concession stand—both still in use today—and a shed to store a kiddie train.

Named for its proximity to State Road 13 and Federal Road 24, the 17-acre site could hold up to 750 cars. The theater opened for business in August 1951, showing Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves on a screen spanning 58 by 44 feet—a monster for its time.

Sixty years later, encroaching expansion of a nearby business park threatened the historic theater. “It was too cool to lose,” says local philanthropist Parker Beauchamp, who—along with his wife, Katie, and parents, Michael and Angie Beauchamp—bought the place. “Of course, the first year in business we had to buy a new digital projector, which cost more than the drive-in itself. We got over it pretty quickly. Looking back on it all, I think it was a good idea.”

The Beauchamps recruited Honeywell Arts & Entertainment to operate the theater, with proceeds benefitting the nonprofit organization. To give the drive-in an additional shot in the arm, Parker’s company INGUARD covers the cost of admission for all children 12 and under—more than 50,000 tickets to date.
For years, the family considered using the site for live events, but 2020 brought the plan into focus, when a local music series needed a new venue to meet social distancing requirements. With a new stage and upgraded electrical equipment, the 13-24 Drive In hosted local acts and national groups like For King & Country. In total, 29,111 patrons attended 45 events at the drive-in in 2020, including live shows and Retro Reels films.

“We intend to be useful and creative in operating the facility in new ways going forward and, as we return to full capacity, look forward to even hosting festivals,” says Tod Minnich, Honeywell Arts & Entertainment president and CEO.

This article originally appeared in the July/August issue of Indiana Preservation, Indiana Landmarks’ member magazine.

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