There was a period of time when the drive-in theater was a mainstay of every state in America with warm summer weather. In the late 1950s and early 1960s it was also an intrinsic part of the car culture. People could see and be seen.
The drive-in also influenced a certain sort of filmmaking. Even though screens often showed the same big-studio offerings the local cinemas were offering, filmmakers realized that some of the visitors weren’t fully there for the movie. After all, when you mix teenagers and cars together, things can happen. Capitalizing on this, B-movie studios started gearing product toward a receptive audience with tense horror flicks and thrillers involving minimal story exposition. Through these studios came filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather, Dementia 13) and James Cameron (Avatar, Piranha 2).
But as mall culture gripped America in the 1980s and the desire to have everything (video arcade, record store, Orange Julius – remember those?) in one location, including the 12-screen movie theater, took hold, the drive-ins dwindled. Their long stretches of black-topped land were more valuable on the market than as a business, and one by one, they were torn down.
The Delsea Drive-In in Vineland is an exception, to an extent. It was built in 1949 but closed in 1987. Reopening in 2004, it became sole drive-in theater in New Jersey, and an impressive one at that. For starters, the drive-in has not one, but two screens, and each screen runs a double feature.
While it's still intrinsically a classic drive-in, technology has allowed for a better overall experience, including FM audio broadcast for sound. The concession stand offers a variety of foods that actually are better for you than the standard theater fare (but if you have to have old favorites, you’ll find them there too).
The Delsea offers new movies, a nostalgic experience, and a one-of-a-kind time. With summer quickly coming to an end, now is the best time to check it out for yourself. This is why the Delsea Drive-In is our pick for this installment of Day Tripper, a weekly look at destinations that are out of town, but in reach, and worth the trip.
DAY TRIPPER DIGEST
Estimated Travel Time: 2 hours, 19 minutes.
Why it’s Worth the Trip: You're not going to find anything like it anywhere in New Jersey. Not unless your car is a DeLorean that comfortably cruises past 88 mph.
How to Get There from Here: Detailed driving directions.
New Jersey has a long history with drive-in theaters—the longest, in fact, because the business model started here. On June 6, 1933 Richard Hollingshead Jr. opened the very first drive-in in Pennsauken. It was a quarter per person and per car. The state saw a number pop up over time, including the novel Fly-In Drive-In at what's now Monmouth Executive Airport in Wall Township (the airport tried unsuccessfully to open a more conventional drive in right around the time Delsea re-opened as well).
Not that the drive-in was the most ideal viewing experience. With poor lighting (if the sun hadn’t properly set for showtime or the projector bulb wasn’t strong enough), poor sound (with speakers attached to poles that extended into your car and clipped onto your driver-side window), and signs the hamburgers on the grill had been there a very, very long time, many establishments seemed sketchy and not-so-family-friendly.
Noted movie critic and film historian Leonard Maltin gave Patch an account of his experiences with drive-ins in his youth: “The long-shuttered Paramus Drive-In was a big part of my childhood. I have vivid memories of my parents taking me and my brother to the drive-in, swatting mosquitoes, straining to hear the tinny speakers, and being grossed out by the vivid pictures of refreshments in the commercials they would run. I cherish those memories even though, from my current perspective, I can’t think of a worse way to actually watch a movie.”
Rotten Tomatoes.com contributor Jeff Giles agreed, recounting his one experience: “I've only been to a drive-in once, and that was to see a showing of Alec Baldwin's "The Shadow" back in ... what was that, 1994? '95? Anyway, the movie was terrible. (The grounds were) totally beaten to hell. Scariest concessions I think I've ever seen. It was really crowded, though—that place was pretty popular when I was a teenager. I wonder if it's still open.”
But technology has gone a long way to make the experience better, starting with the sound, now broadcast via FM radio into patrons’ cars. The Delsea has the usual treats and several low-carb, Atkins-friendly alternatives, and if you get the popcorn without butter and salt, that is a suitable snack for the diet-concerned. The theater also takes credit cards (while the Delsea is an affordable family night out, it certainly is not a quarter per person, per car anymore).
Editor's Note: Those who remember (and grew up loving!) drive-in movie theaters can also find one just over the New York border north of Vernon, N.J. — the Warwick Drive-in in Warwick, N.Y. That trip takes about an hour and a quarter. The phone number for the drive in theater, located off Route 94, is (845) 986-4440.