Manheim man shares love of drive-in movie theatres through Facebook

By on September 19, 2018

Tom Brendel at the concession stand of the Columbia Drive-in, 2005.

For many people, the term “drive-in movie theatre” is imbued with a bit of nostalgia. But there are still a number of drive-in movie theatres around.

Manheim resident Tom Brendel knows where many of the remaining 27 drive-ins in the state are, and has visited nearly every one of them.

“I’m a drive-in enthusiast. I like to go to them, collect things from them,” the 46-year-old said, “I’m the opposite of most people; I haven’t been to an indoor movie theater in about seven years. This has been an unusual year for me. I saw movies at the drive-in only about six or seven times.”

His first experiences at a drive-in were as a child in the mid- to late-70s.

“Mom and dad would load us into the station wagon. We parked in the back, and you could lay on the top of the car and watch the movie,” he recalls. “We would get there early; I liked playing in the playground area.”

Lancaster County had three drive-ins: the Comet, located near what is now Route 283 and Rohrerstown Road; the Sky-Vue, located along Lincoln Highway West (Tanger Outlets now occupies the site); and Columbia Drive-In, located along Route 462 outside of Columbia. Brendel’s parents took the family to see shows at each one depending on what was playing.

In his early teens, the family didn’t visit drive-in movies, but he said he rediscovered them in the early 1990s. By then only the Columbia Drive-In remained in the county. Brendel said the Comet closed in 1979, and the Sky-Vue in 1980 or 81.

Columbia Drive-in sign, photographed circa 1993.

(A closer view)

“I had my first car and enjoyed the experience of watching the movie on a huge screen from the car,” he said. “There was usually a double-feature with a 10- to 15-minute intermission in-between. Intermission is when you visited the concession stand — that’s how the drive-ins made most of their money.”

He had a book that listed other drive-in movie theatres in the state, and he visited as many as possible, often photographing them and collecting souvenirs like movie programs or matchbooks. He also visited drive-ins in the surrounding states.

“Sometimes I would get there and they had closed,” Brendel said adding that in the early 90s there were about 10 drive-ins within an hour or an hour-and-half drive; now there are three: Haar’s in Dillsburg, Sky-Vu in Gratz, and Cumberland in Newville.

“Each drive-in has its own special feel. Some had elaborate screens, some had elaborate marquees at their entrance. I never saw a movie there because it closed in 1971, but my research indicates the Lincoln Theatre (west of Thomasville, York County) had a neon star and the words ‘Lincoln Theatre’ were in neon on the back of the movie screen,” Brendel said.

In its heyday (the late 50s early 60s), he said there were over 4,000 drive-in movie theatres in the U.S. Now the number has dropped to about 320. But all is not lost; he reported that a drive-in in the western part of the state was scheduled to open this year, but has been delayed.

Posters from the Car View Drive-in in Louisburg, N.C., from the early 1970s.

Today the movie’s audio is via your car radio, but back then sound was from a speaker that theatregoers hung in their car window. Some drive-ins, including Columbia Drive-In, had heaters to place in the car along with the speakers. Back in the day, there was just one movie screen, but today some drive-ins like the Dependable Drive-In in Coraopolis, have multiple screens. Dependable has four screens, and he said it’s open year-round.

Brendel said drive-ins were built in rural areas in the 1950s. As time went by the surrounding areas grew up, and the land the drive-ins were on became more valuable and was sold to make way for development. He pointed out that more recently drive-ins closed due to the cost of digital conversion.

“Since most drive-ins are only open late April through sometime in September, they have a short season, and couldn’t absorb the cost of converting to digital projections equipment,” he explained.

A collection of drive-in speakers.

Columbia Drive-In closed Oct. 16, 2005. Brendel was part of a grassroots group who tried to save it from closing. He explained that the drive-in theatre’s operator didn’t own the land and the lease wasn’t renewed. He and other collected about 20,000 signature to try to keep the theatre open.

“Like many other people, I really enjoyed seeing movies there. And it was the last drive-in in the county,” he said.

Ultimately the drive-in closed, but he has some great memories of time spent there, as well as some memorabilia such as a speaker and a heater. He recently started a Facebook page dedicated to his pastime: facebook.com/groups/PADriveInTheatres. It focuses primarily on Pennsylvania drive-in movie theatres and their history.

“I share things from the past and the present including some of my photos and memorabilia. People share things, too. Someone recently posted a picture of the original screen at the Columbia Drive-In,” he said.

Currently it’s the only way he shares his passion for drive-ins, but down the road he would like to create a photobook using the slides he’s taken of drive-ins over the years.

Rochelle Shenk is a correspondent for the Lititz Record Express. She welcomes your comments and questions at RAASHENK@aol.com.

Old Columbia Drive-in sign with admission prices.

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