Experience Classic Drive-ins With Modern Features
Want to experience a slice of mid-20th century Americana this spring and summer? Why not make a night of it at one of the last remaining drive-in movie theaters in the Pacific Northwest? Read on find our picks for some of the best places to see a movie in your car. Grab some popcorn with lots of butter. No need to dress up. You even can wear your pajamas.
Drive-in movie theaters officially flickered into existence on June 6, 1933, with the opening of the “World’s First Automobile Movie Theater” near Camden, New Jersey. Richard M. Hollingshead Jr. had been using his family’s driveway to experiment with how best to show movies outdoors. He opened a drive-in theater for the public just three weeks after receiving a patent for the entertainment concept promoted as welcoming for the whole family, “regardless of how noisy the children are.”
It did not take long for a night at the drive-in to become an iconic American pastime, for families who could bring the kids along in their pajamas, for carloads of teenagers, and for couples on dates. There were more than 4,000 drive-ins movie theaters operating across the country during the 1950s and well into the 1960s. But today about 330 drive-ins still exist nationwide.
And more than a dozen still operate in the Pacific Northwest.
Rediscovered during the pandemic when indoor cinemas were closed, outdoor movie theaters offer a socially distanced way to get a film fix and a movie experience that is nostalgic and modern.
Moviegoers still watch the film — usually a double feature — from inside their parked vehicles, or from lawn chairs nearby, and enjoy food and drinks from an onsite snack bar. But instead of hanging a corded speaker on the car window as was standard in the ‘old days,’ today the movie audio is much better and delivered via an FM signal on your car radio, a rented portable one or, in some cases, a phone app. And while popcorn, candy, soda, hot dogs and hamburgers are still staple snack bar items, today some drive-in movie theater concession stands offer gluten-free menu items and online ordering.
Here’s a roundup of most of the drive-in movie theaters in our region. Most theaters listed here have already opened for the season or are about to. Operating days and season length vary by time of the year and the weather, so be sure to call ahead or check online before piling in the car.
Blue Fox Drive-In, Whidbey Island
Blue Fox Drive-In on Whidbey Island began showing outdoor movies on Memorial Day weekend 1959. The first was “April Love” with Pat Boone and Shirley Jones. Today this drive-in not only shows double features year-round, but is also home to a go-kart track, an arcade and the Backlot Tavern, with 12 rotating taps and views of the screen. “It’s a military town, so we play the national anthem before every movie,” says Darrell Bratt, who has co-owned the drive-in since 1988. “When the song is over, people honk their horns to show their patriotism.”
Skyline Drive-In Movie Theater, Shelton
Shelton’s Skyline Drive-In Movie Theater opened in May 1964 and was built by two painters who worked in the Bremerton Navy Shipyard by day and operated movie theaters at night. The theater debuted with a double feature of Walt Disney’s “Lady and the Tramp” and “Billy Budd.” Today Dorothea Mayes owns the Skyline and says that like area drive-ins, this drive-in has annual traditions. At the Skyline they offer midnight screening of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” a Kids Day carnival that ends with family movies, and a Labor Day triple bill followed by a pancake breakfast.
Wheel-In Motor Movie, Port Townsend
Ernie and Geneve Thompson opened this western-themed drive-in within the woods of Jefferson County in spring 1953, “and it’s been going ever since,” says Richard Wiley, now the third generation of the family to run the theater. Special seasonal events include Sunday evening drawings for free passes, movie posters and treats from the concession stand; a Labor Day weekend triple feature with a pancake and sausage breakfast between the second and third feature; and a Halloween “Triple Creature Feature” with a costume contest to end the season.
Auto-Vue Drive-in Theatre, Colville
Colville’s Auto-Vue Drive-In Theatre has been showing outdoor movies since May 1953 and is now operated by Steve Wisner, whose parents bought the theater in 1974. Aside from offering moviegoers a bonus mountain view behind the screen, Wisner says the Auto-Vue is unique in offering a carload night for a modest fixed fee on Sundays and delivering the movie soundtracks on both the AM and FM bands.
Rodeo Drive-In Theater, Bremerton
Bremerton’s Rodeo Drive-In first opened in 1949 as “Rodeo Motor Movies” with a single screen. Today there are three screens and capacity for one thousand cars and special parking areas for vans, trucks, buses, semitractors and — should an extraterrestial ever land here for a corn dog and a double feature — space for their flying saucer. Jack Ondracek, owner since 1986, says while mall cinemas may all look alike, “every drive-in is different. These places tend to be family-owned and absorb the personality of their owners,” and are definitely labors of love.
Elsewhere in Washington, find a 60-car drive-in theater behind the Neptune Movie House on the Long Beach Peninsula and a handful of drive-in movie nights at the HUB Sports Center in Liberty Lake, east of Spokane, including two summer shows and special screenings around Halloween and Christmas.
Oregon and Idaho Drive-Ins
Pacific Northwest road trippers will find drive-in movie theaters in Oregon and Idaho too.
In Oregon, Newberg is home to the 99W Drive-In, first opened in 1953; the La Grande Drive-In in La Grande; and the M-F Drive-In Theater in Milton-Freewater.
Idaho is home to more than half a dozen drive-in theaters, including the Terrace Drive-In Theatre in Caldwell; the Parma Motor-Vu in Parma; the Motor Vu Drive-In in Idaho Falls, built in 1947; the Sunset Auto Vue in Grangeville; the Teton Vu Drive-In in Rexburg; and the Idan-Ha Drive-In Theatre in Soda Springs.
There is also the charming Spud Drive-In Theatre in Driggs. In addition to the social media-friendly pickup (“Old Murphy”) out front with a giant potato in the bed of the truck, the Spud Drive-In boasts views of the Big Hole Mountain Range and two cozy Airbnb cabins onsite.
–Written by Harriet Baskas, last updated in October 2022.
–Top photo from rodeodrivein.com