Texas Travel

Texas’ Drive-In Movie Theater Revival

By Casey Kelly-Barton 7.19.17

You’re in your car with the windows rolled down, enjoying a breeze under the light of a Texas moon. A starry night sky provides a backdrop as the opening credits fill up the big screen. This is a night out at one of Texas’ drive-in theaters, and it is not a thing of the past. We may have left behind our poodle skirts and jukeboxes, but in a handful of places around Texas, the drive-in is still the place to be on a Friday or Saturday night.

American Drive-In Magic

The very first drive-in movie theater opened in Camden, New Jersey, in the summer of 1933. The very next year, Houston architect Louis Josserand launched a Texas version. On July 5, 1934, Josserand’s “experimental” theater opened on the beach in Galveston “with the cars facing out to sea,” historian Kerry Segrave wrote in Drive-in Theaters: A History from Their Inception in 1933. The ramps and parking areas were made of wet sand that had to be re-graded and soaked before each night’s screening, and “even so, some [drivers] would occasionally get stuck.” Texas’ first drive-in lasted less than a month before a storm destroyed it.

Drive-ins — mostly showing B movies with sound provided by metal speakers at each parking space — peaked in popularity during the 1950s, when Texas had about 475 of the nation’s 5,000 drive-in theaters. Over the next few decades, the rising cost of real estate and the popularity of the indoor multiplex contributed to the drive-in’s decline. By 1997, only 11 Texas drive-ins were still in business.

Nostalgia and novelty are driving the revival, but drive-ins offer practical advantages, too. Double features serve up two films for the price of one, and the kids can sleep in the car, so parents can skip hiring a sitter. Most of today’s drive-ins show first-run films, and in some cases, you can buy your tickets in advance online.

Texas now has more than 16 family-oriented drive-in theaters and a close-knit community of owners and managers. “Just about all of us know everybody,” said Ray Andress, one of the buyers who saved Abilene’s Town & Country Drive-In from the wrecking ball in 2000. Today, Andress manages the theater for owners Martin and Marsha Murray, who also own and operate the Galaxy Drive-In in Ennis.

Texas’ Drive-In Theaters

Big Sky Theatre, Midland: Here’s one of three theaters in the state where you can get a Famous Chihuahua Sandwich at the concession stand. Its three screens are open nightly, year-round. 

Blue Starlite Mini Urban Drive-In, Austin: It describes itself as a “pop-up boutique” theater. Condé Nast Traveler describes it as “one of the coolest outdoor movie theaters in the world.” There are only 50 parking spaces, but there’s extra room for walk-in and bike-in guests. Quiet dogs are welcome.

The Brazos Drive-In, Granbury: In business since 1952, this vintage institution takes cash only but welcomes dogs. Open Friday and Saturday nights, year-round, weather permitting. 

Coyote Drive-In, Fort Worth: This Panther Island treasure has four screens and operates year-round. The on-site canteen menu includes pizza, burgers, and Mexican street corn. 

Coyote Drive-In, Lewisville: The area’s newest theater opened in 2016 with five screens, an on-site canteen, pet-friendly policies, FM radio rentals, and a freestanding-speaker area near each screen so viewers who “arrive by foot, bike, bus, or horse” can enjoy the show, too.

Galaxy Drive-In, Ennis: Seven screens make it Texas’ largest drive-in theater (two even show films in 3D). Putt-putt, two snack bars, and live music make it a popular destination for Dallas-area film fans. Open nightly.

Graham Drive-In, Graham: It calls itself “one of the oldest operating drive-in movie theaters” in Texas and indeed dates back to 1955. Open Friday and Saturday nights year-round. 

Last Drive-In Picture Show, Gatesville: This 1950 original still shows movies year-round, except on Christmas Eve. An indoor theater on-site screens matinees on the weekends, too. 

Mission Marquee Plaza, San Antonio: When the Mission Drive-In closed, the city revived its soul in a place where families gather for free movie nights, arts festivals, and special events. 

Sandell Drive-In, Clarendon: This 2002 reboot of a 1955 original stays true to its roots with a single screen and classic film showings. It prides itself on homemade burgers (“the best in the Panhandle”) and chili (perfect for topping a Frito pie). Open Friday and Saturday nights from April through August. 

The Showboat Drive-In, Hockley: Named for the owner’s grandfather’s ’50s-era drive-in, the two-screen theater features a playground near each screen and welcomes pets, with a couple of rules.Your “dog, cat, hamster, bird, or turtle” must stay inside your vehicle and not distract others. Open every Friday and Saturday night, weather permitting. 

Stars & Stripes Drive-In, Lubbock: A big draw since it opened in 2003, this joint allows well-behaved pets and even has a playground. Open nightly during the summer and during school holidays; open Friday through Sunday (plus select weekdays) the rest of the year.  

Stars & Stripes Drive-In, New Braunfels: Since 2015, it’s become a popular destination for locals and tourists alike. Three screens show films every night.

Sky Vue Drive-In, Tyler: Handmade pizza and first-run double features every night except Thursdays. No big deal.

Tascosa Drive-In, Amarillo: The concession stand (cash only) includes a Coke float in a mug at this pet-friendly retro-vibey place. Open Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights from March through October, rain or shine.

Town & Country Drive-In, Abilene: When it opened in 1956, this was the largest drive-in theater in Texas, with two screens and parking for almost 1,500 cars. It closed in 1981 but reopened in 2000 and has grown to four screens. Open nightly, year-round.  

WesMer Drive-In, Mercedes: This cash-only single-screen venue popular for charging admission by the vehicle instead of per person shows double features every night, rain or shine. 

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