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This ticket advertises a free pass for the driver at the Shadeland Drive-in. (Image: eBay)

For those who grew up in between the 1950s and 1980s, a summertime rite of passage always included a few nights at the local drive-in theater. Whether you were a youngster on the playground, indifferent to the show, or capitalizing on the opportunity to canoodle with your significant other, indifferent to the show, the drive-in served as an entertainment mecca for a few generations.

Many believe that the beginning of the drive-in era coincided with sock hops and tail fins, but they would be wrong. Technically, outdoor movies first appeared at the dawn of motion pictures, in the early twentieth century. Traveling showmen brought movies to people for whom a schlep to the city was not feasible. Peddlers presented pictures on outdoor makeshift screens, using hand-cranked projectors at various fairs, picnics, and church bazaars in rural communities. Like the modern drive-in experience, the dress was casual, and entire families made the trip, even including the family dog. Modern drive-ins first popped up in Camden, New York, just prior to the start of World War II. After the war, the trend took off, providing movie goers over 4,000 locations nationwide by 1956.

In Indianapolis, residents had their choice of up to thirteen theaters. To put that in perspective: fewer than ten traditional movie theaters exist in the city today. According to city directories, theaters in Marion County included:
Name                       Approximate Location                 Years Active
Westside             Washington and Girls School Road         1949-1955
Bel-Air                 2900 Kentucky Avenue                              1950-1980
Twin                     2463 Hoyt Avenue                                      1950-1996
Clermont             10310 U.S. 136                                             1950-2007
National               U.S. 40, Cumberland                                 1952-1984
Shadeland            2500 Shadeland Avenue                          1954-1985
Lafayette Road    3930 Lafayette Road                                1955- 1980
Westlake              10th Street and High School Road         1961- 1986
Mark Twain         9901 Westfield Boulevard                       1962- 1981
South 31               7900 South US 31                                       1965- 1984
Sherman              2505 Sherman Drive                                  1965-1988
Tibbs                    180 South Tibbs Avenue                            1967- Present
South View         1421 West Thompson Road                       1974- 1998

This 1963 ad in the Indianapolis Times shows what's playing at area drive-in theaters (Courtesy Indiana State Library)

This 1963 ad in the Indianapolis Times shows what’s playing at area drive-in theaters (Image: Indiana State Library)

What happened to this once booming business? Several factors played into the demise of the drive-in theater. For one, the energy crisis of the 1970s greatly reduced leisurely drives. By the mid-eighties, VCRs and home movie rentals greatly reduced the cost and headache of family movie night. But the biggest reason may have more to do with location. When built, most of the aforementioned locations were on the outskirts of town. Over the years, fields and forests were replaced with housing subdividions and shopping centers.

There came a point where the value of land far exceeded what a seasonal mom and pop business could take in — especially anticipating retirement after thirty years in the business. Today, the vast majority of Indy drive-in sites feature some sort of big-box development. Daylight Saving Time and expensive digital projection equipment probably prevented any future growth. However, today folks can still enjoy a great night under the stars at the Tibbs Drive-in on the west side.

What was your favorite Indy place to take in a summertime flick?

This was a common sight at drive-in theaters nationwide. The Projected Sound Company in nearby Plainfield, IN was a leading producer of drive-in speakers. Many of these were the targets of vandalism and inadvertent drive-offs. By the 1980's many drive-ins began using low-powered FM radio stations to broadcast sound tracks. Projected Sound still makes public address speakers in Plainfield (Courtesy eBay)

This was a common sight at drive-in theaters nationwide. The Projected Sound Company in nearby Plainfield, IN was a leading producer of drive-in speakers. Many of these were the targets of vandalism and inadvertent drive-offs. By the 1980’s many drive-ins began using low-powered FM radio stations to broadcast soundtracks. Projected Sound still makes public address speakers in Plainfield. (Image: eBay)

Printed Sources

Indianapolis Star Magazine, September 16, 1956

Indianapolis Times, July 2, 1963

Indianapolis Monthly, July 2013

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14 responses to “At Your Leisure: At the Drive-in”

  1. Jack Rhodes says:

    Ah…the drive-in movie. The one my family attended most was probably the National, east of Cumberland on US40. Most drive-ins had a small playground, usually just in front of the screen area. The National took that one step further. For a time, it had a small go-cart track just to the east of the ticket booths at the entrance off 40. Of course, the cars would always stop running in time for the previews.

    Always a great double bill…something like A Man Called Flintstone for the kids followed by A Thousand Clowns for the parents — or, Hey There, It’s Yogi Bear followed by Goldfinger. Rebellious kid that I was, I’d sleep through the kid movie and be wide awake for the parents second feature.

    The National was far enough out of town that it had trouble drawing an audience. Combined with a screen fire that put it out of commission for a time, I seemed to recall it being one of the first to close. So I was surprised to find that the co-owned Lafayette Road closed before it. I guess that property across from Lafayette Square was then far more valuable for redevelopment.

    The owner of the Priority Theater chain that owned the Lafayette Road needed capital to help him obtain the license for the radio station at 107.9 FM. Priority also owned movie auditoriums adjacent to most of their drive-ins. Regency 1 & 2 with the South 31. Georgetown with the Lafayette Road. Carlyle with the Shadeland. I recall that all were closed by the time he put the radio station on air in the fall of 1985. Of the Priority Theaters, only the building for the Carlyle still stands as an Industrial Services company.

    One that shows in the Times graphic but not in your list is the Pendleton Pike Drive-In. Probably my favorite drive-in of all time. Big screen, great sound, cheap tasty concession stand, and always a great show even before the movie with their “Pike Parties” — often times with a live DJ spinning the hits. Always a great value for the dollar. Convenient to the enlisted men and women stationed at Ft. Harrison. As long as Ft. Ben was open, they had an audience. The site eventually operated as a flea market. Now Monarch Beverage is located there.

    The last drive-in movie I saw was 1993’s The Fugitive at Noblesville’s old ABC Drive-In. My wife was 30 years old and had never been to a drive-in movie. She’s a Harrison Ford fan. Maybe that’s why she married me. Harrison and I share the same birthday.

  2. Mike Hoffmann says:

    I would visit Indy during the Summers of my youth. The one outdoor theater that I remember was The Twin Air. Not sure of the address – it was located by the refining plant. Is it included in your list? thanks.Mike

  3. Jeff Kamm says:

    The Twin Drive-in had an address off of Hoyt Avenue where Rural Street curves west. It’s very close to the Twin Aire shopping center which still exists. It stayed in business into the 90s. I saw that some type of fire may have occurred but could not find a news source to back that up. If you look at areal photographs of the area today you can still make out the back to back fan shaped parking areas that faced the twin screens. Last I heard the Rugby Club of Indianapolis was trying to buy the property for Rugby fields.

  4. Jeff Kamm says:

    Thanks for sharing the great memories Jack! I don’t know if you are around the area these days but the site of the drive in contains a strip mall that once featured an Outback Steakhouse and Uncle Bills pet store among other small shops. A Cub Foods served as the anchor of this development. Strangely enough when they left, the former store was converted into a 14 screen theater which is still going strong. The area has changed greatly. The mall no longer has any of the original anchor stores. In recent years many tasty international restaurants have opened in the once nearly abandoned strip centers. I can’t believe I missed the Pendleton Pike. Their screen was still standing until around 2008. Being so far out it was probably omitted from city directories and I just didn’t think of it. I was always on the west side when the Clermont Deluxe was still going strong!

  5. TJNation says:

    We used to go to the Twin – it was bought out by the Coke plant across the street after their natural gas storage tank was broken so they burned their extra fuel that caused a flame so bright the drive-in couldn’t operate.

  6. Jack Rhodes says:

    We’re now in Ohio, but I lived on the westside for most of the 1980s. When my wife and I first dated (late 1980s), she worked at Butler University. I’d drive over and we’d head to the Lafayette Square area for lunch. The place I seem to recall hitting most was a Noble Roman’s Pizza that sat on part of the old Lafayette Road drive-in property.

    Short of a quick drive by on I-65, I haven’t been to the 38th and Lafayette area in over 20 years. Just did a street view look via Google Maps. Lots of empty car dealerships, store fronts and restaurants. There was a great Chinese restaurant next to Don Sisk Pontiac. Looks like both are sitting empty now. That Cub converted to a movie-plex is sitting about where the old Georgetown theater sat. And is that really Lafayette Square? Of all the old business, it looks like just Indiana Lighting and Don’s Guns are still in business at 38th and Lafayette.

  7. Mike Hoffmann says:

    Thanks, After I looked at the ad that was in the article, I noticed that it was the Twin Theater. During the summers we would visit INdy. Our route to my grandmas’s house from Washington STreet took us past the Twin Theater. I recall that the “Sand pebbles: playyed on the West Facing (I believe). Indy was a great place to visit as a kid.

  8. Terry wilgus says:

    I think the Pendleton Pike was forgotten

  9. Vernon Marsh says:

    We moved to Indy in 2000 or so and rented on the NW side of town and then bought a house near Pendleton Pike. I remember driving up and down the Pike to get on the Interstate and saw that drive in screen for several years and then it disappeared. I read here that that was around 2008. Now we live near the Twin Aire neighborhood and frequent the Twin Aire Kroger and have heard stories about the drive in there. I have fond memories of going to the Twilight Drive In in Columbia, S.C. when I was in high school. I have talked to my now adult daughters about the drive in concept and they think I’m crazy. I have yet to go to the Clermont drive in but hope to make it soon. I enjoyed reading in this website. Keep up the good work!

  10. Patti Boring says:

    I grew up at the Twin-Aire area, I went to school 21 from kindergarten thur 8th grade there, 1959-1967, The shopping center was built in 1956 and I watched it being built, but the article said the Twin drive-in started in 1950, I didn,t think it was built until after the Shopping center was finished and that was 1958, could you enlighten me please on if this is true!

  11. Tiffany Benedict Browne says:

    Hmm. Looks like there were perhaps two addresses for the same drive-in? Looking at google maps, the Hoyt address seems fairly far from 3000 Southeastern Avenue. I found that in city directories under a couple different names and it was listed at 3000 Southeastern by 1954. There was no city directory for 1953, so it could have been as early as that, but it was not there in 1952.

  12. Bob Ross says:

    IMy Dad work there when he was 14 till 1988 And my sister was the Gm til they sold it in 1993 to the gas compan! I I started working there when I was 11 years old they also owned the Bellaire and the Northside

  13. Charlotte Smith says:

    My husband worked at the shadeland drive in worked for Joe & Morris.
    He also was one of the people that shot the fireworks.
    He has since passed.

  14. jeffrey l. nichols says:

    What was the name of the free drive-in on Shadeland ave that sold food while you watched old movies.
    around 1962

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