If you’re a student at Azusa Pacific University or a resident in the surrounding city of Azusa, you have no doubt seen the iconic Azusa Foothill Drive-In Theater sign that still stands on APU’s West Campus. This vintage red neon sign that now acts as a marquee for APU events and announcements is a constant reminder of the once beautiful and thriving drive-in movie theater. For all those who were wondering why H lot is full of sloping parking spaces that destroy the front-end of your car if you drive too fast, there’s your answer.

The view of a large and glowing drive-in marquee is a rare sight these days. Drive-in theaters were once a popular date night pastime that have now become an outdated and dying concept. The realization that such an iconic staple of American history has basically disappeared saddens me. When I think of drive-in theaters, I think of “Grease,” “The Outsiders,” cozy makeshift beds, a cheap movie, sneaking in friends while they giggle under blankets in the backseat and a generally great night of movie-going under the stars.  

Unfortunately, the time of drive-in theaters is coming to a close. How did it come to this? The reign of watching a movie from the comfort of a truck bed can’t be over, can it? Well, it certainly seems that way.

Currently, there are only about 300 drive-in theaters still active in the United States, which is substantially less than the 4,000 active theaters in the late 1950s.

The Azusa Foothill Drive-In was the last remaining operating drive-in on Route 66 west of Missouri but was closed down in 2001 after APU bought the land to build the university. The 40-year lifespan of the drive-in earned recognition from the California Historical Resources Commission in 2002. The marquee was later declared a historical landmark to remain protected by the commission. So the sign is not just a random display for APU announcements. It serves as a reminder of Azusa’s neat history!

The original drive-in was patented in June 1933 by Richard Hollingshead in New Jersey. It quickly gained popularity, as drive-in theaters offer a comfortable and flexible alternative to the traditional cramped indoor movie theater seats. Drive-in theaters became so popular that they spread throughout the U.S. and other countries such as Australia and Canada.

Drive-ins reached their peak population of 4,000 in the continental U.S. in the ‘50s and ‘60s following the Baby Boomer generation. The decline began not too long after the ‘70s when an influx of oil prices drove people to downsize their cars to save money. This made watching movies in a car less comfortable because it forced people into a much more confined space. In 1977, JVC released the first videocassette recorder (VCR) machines in the U.S., making it more convenient for people to watch movies at home. So, just like peace, love and all things hippie in the ‘70s, the drive-in presence faded into obscurity.

By the late ‘80s, only 200 drive-in theaters remained active. With fewer customers paying to watch movies, the price of land became too expensive, so most owners sold the land instead. However, the ‘90s brought new hope with a slight resurgence of the vintage film-viewing method and most doubled as flea markets on the weekends.

Despite this good news, most drive-in owners and operators believe running drive-ins has become increasingly impractical. In this day and age, just about every movie is digitally converted, so it has become expensive for drive-ins to show new releases without converting to digital projection. The old method required movie studios to create 35mm film reels and distribute them to drive-ins, but the technology boom essentially forced drive-in theaters to go digital. Since digital projectors can cost tens of thousands of dollars, it’s no wonder so many drive-ins have shut down rather than follow the switch from film to digital.

I am lucky enough to have grown up in Riverside, Calif. where two drive-ins were just 20 minutes from my house.The Van Buren Drive-In Theater and Swap Meet and the Rubidoux Drive-In Theater have each granted me priceless memories of late nights out with friends, binging on too much junk food and enjoying the unique experience of watching a movie under the night sky.

Both theaters are about one hour away from Azusa’s campus, which is not too inconvenient for a great experience. Each drive-in has three screens and is equipped with FM transmitters and Technalight digital projection, which ensures the best possible picture and sound available. The state-of-the-art equipment, remodeling projects and new release showings have kept the drive-ins alive and kicking.

“Fortunately the drive-in theatre is not a forgotten relic, but exciting living history. Thanks to Van Buren and other theatres like it, drive-ins are poised to be a familiar American movie going experience,” states the Van Buren Drive-In website.  

The decline of these nostalgic American icons is a sad reality. However, I encourage everyone to visit those that remain and cherish the experience while you can. After all, nothing is better than a cheap ticket, a comfy seat and a good time at the movies.