Revisting The Drive-In Theater

May 17, 2013


"Oz: The Great and Powerful" as the film played at Roy's Black Hills Twin Drive-In Movie Theater.
Credit Photo by Jim Kent


As traditional movie theaters have gotten larger – and, yet, smaller – at the same time, the ability to enjoy a night out with the latest Hollywood has to offer has become a bit too impersonal. At least, that’s what folks sitting in their vehicles told us when we made the rounds at Roy's Black Hills Twin Drive-In Movie Theater – on today’s Dakota Digest. This is the sound of a movie theater before the film starts - wind.  

That may seem odd, but not if you’re a fan of drive-in theaters – where long hallways leading to small, crowded rooms showing extremely loud surround-sound films are replaced by open spaces with surround-vision views, fresh air and room to breathe.

“Well, look at the vista out here,” says Tony Curtis. “We’ve got the sunset, we’ve got the trees, we’ve got the Black Hills.”

Tony Curtis – no relation to the actor – grew up going to drive-in theaters in California. Now that he’s back in his home state, Tony is happy to be able to take his own kids to “Roy's” – the newest drive-in movie theater West River.

“It gets them away from the internet, gets them away from the television,” Curtis explains. “It’s more active. It’s outdoors, ya’’ know? It’s…it’s a family thing. I feel great about bringing my kids here.”

Roy Rittenbaugh has managed the movie theater in Hot Springs since 1999. But his dream has always been to own a drive-in. After 7 years spent finding land, backers and completing an array of permits, Roy finally opened his Twin Drive-In Movie Theater in Hermosa last summer. And though it was a long road getting there, Roy’s happy he did.

“We’ve had lots of different people say they’ve had some great experiences at the drive-in,” says Roy. “Makes me feel kind of good that we got to do something like that.”

Among those who are pleased to see Roy’s in operation are Donna Norton and her friend, Wanda. Donna couldn’t be more thrilled.

“Oh, I love it,” Donna shouts. “I love it. Couldn’t wait. Wanda and I, we come every…all last year. We’ve already planned on coming all this year. We tell everybody that we know that they need to come out here. It’s just like when you were a teenager…except you’re not neckin’.”

Right. Wanda, on the other hand, says there have been additional changes over the many years since she and her friend were to a drive-in.

“Back in the day, all these posts would have a speaker on them,” recalls Wanda. “And you would partially roll up your window and it would be on your window. And once in a while a car would drive off and pull the speaker off.”

But everything’s much improved now, adds Wanda. Improved because now you simply turn your radio to the appropriate setting and the movie’s sound comes into your vehicle via the radio.

Of course, this is all new to me. Growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y. there were no drive-in theaters. So, after all these years and accompanied by my wife – who used to go see outdoor films in her pajamas as a kid – I’m seeing my first drive-in movie.

But I’m not alone in my innocence.

Annaliese - 13 years old; Peder –12; Devi 13!; Delani - 12 years old, Hailey – 12 and Taylor – also 12 years old. have also never seen a drive-in movie.

I’m Jim, and I’m…older than them.

Okay, so how does everyone feel about going to a drive-in movie for the first time?

“I’m pretty excited,” says Annaliese. “Excited,” adds Peder. “This is my first time and it’s gonna’ be epic," shouts Devi. “I’ll get to brag about it at school,” Delani explains. “I like being in nature, so this is nice," says Hailey. “Normally, when I’m in the movie theater it’s always packed and I end up sitting by this, like, fat sweaty guy," explains Taylor - laughing with her friends Delani and Hailey. "So, it’s really, really bad. So, I like this much better.”

So, I’m in my car, I’ve gotten a root beer, popcorn and my Junior Mints and I’m ready for my first drive-in movie: “Oz: The Great and Powerful”.

Nice. My seat’s a lot more comfortable than a traditional theater. I can ease back, move up, control the volume or turn the heat on as the night grows cold. My wife agrees. The only one who’s bored is my Belgian Shepherd, who's snoring on the back seat.

But what about the other first-timers?

Delani, Hailey and Taylor respond in unison: " It was awesome. Great. It was cool. It was great. We were like perfectly comfortable… yeah.”

Speaking for herself, Peder and Devi, Annaliese is a bit more pragmatic.

"It was okay," she observes. "But we need to get a car wash before we come here.” “Yeah," laughs Devi. "The window’s all dirty.” “You got to be in your own comfort," Annaliese continues."You got to be not surrounded by a bunch of strangers, which scares some people. Cons are…if you’re in a car…like, we can’t see in the back.”

But Peder has his own comment. “I’m hungry and cold," he complains.

Obviously, you can’t please everyone.

South Dakota once had 31 drive-ins across the state; now there are 8. The oldest, in Gregory, opened in 1946.

Drive-in movie theaters may not be the perfect place for family entertainment – kids have to lay down in the back seat to see. But as Tony Curtis points out, he enjoyed seeing “Herbie: The Love Bug” in one, and he’s glad there’s a new drive-in nearby to take his kids to.