See Movies from Your Car! (If You Can Beat the Traffic)

Image of the entrance to a drive-in theater. The facade on the back of the screen reads "Sidney Lust's Drive In Theatre." The marquee is advertising the film "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" with Frank Sinatra. At the bottom of the marquee is the tagline "See Movies From Your Car."
Sidney Lust’s Drive In Theatre, U.S. Route 1, Beltsville, Maryland (NAID: 169136694)

It’s summertime and that means that it is drive-in movie season! In their heyday, there were thousands of drive-in theaters across the United States. Some of these drive-ins could accommodate over a thousand vehicles at a time, so you can imagine the kind of traffic you’d encounter before and after a show.

As drive-in theaters grew in popularity, the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads (now the Federal Highway Administration) performed a study of their impact on traffic in 1949. The Bureau reviewed traffic data from different theaters and made recommendations for entrance and exit designs, and even a new standard road sign to warn motorists that there was a theater ahead.

The images related to theater studies also include photographs of drive-in theaters around the country. When searching for drive-ins near the National Archives in College Park, we discovered this photograph of a theater located off Route 1 in Muirkirk, Maryland.

Image of a drive-in theater taken from the back of the parking area. At the front is a movie screen and there are stands with portable speakers arranged in rows in the parking area. In the background we see the back of the theater marquee and a church on a hill.
Drive-in Theater on U.S. 1 at Muirkirk, Maryland (NAID: 169136826)

No matter how much we researched—internet searches, old newspapers, drive-in theater history associations—we could not find any mention of a theater in Muirkirk (although the town has a fascinating history). Finally, we determined that the theater pictured was the Sidney Lust Drive-In in Beltsville, Maryland, just 15 minutes north of the College Park Archives building. The photographer had misidentified the location! Fortunately, the Bureau of Roads captured additional photographs showing the Beltsville theater marquee (see the top of this post for one) against which we could compare the shape of the screen and site features.

The Sidney Lust Drive-In opened on July 10, 1947. It had a 32 by 40 foot screen, in-car speakers, and space for one thousand cars. Lust operated the theater until 1976 when it was sold and renamed the Beltsville Drive-In. Sadly, the theater closed in 1987 and the site is now occupied by a big-box wholesale store.

While researching the Beltsville Drive-In, we also discovered a second drive-in that used to be located 15 minutes south of the College Park Archives building. When it opened in July 1955, the Queens Chapel Drive-In Theatre boasted stereophonic sound and “the brightest and largest screen in the world!” It closed in 1983 and is now the location of the West Hyattsville Metro Station.

There is now only one drive-in theater remaining in Maryland. Bengies Drive-In in Baltimore continues to open for the summer months. Drive-ins have seen a surge in interest during the Covid-19 pandemic and may be found in almost every state in the country. If you are lucky enough to live near a drive-in theater, we recommend attending for an unforgettable experience!

If you can’t make it to the theater, you can spend some time browsing the Historical Photograph Files of the Bureau of Public Roads.  Enter a state, city, town, or geographical location into the search bar to explore over 49,000 images. Searching Maryland, Idaho, Seattle, and Mississippi River each uncovers a wealth of photos. What treasures will you find?

For more drive-in theater content, read this Unwritten Record blog post from 2014 about a drive-in movie for horses!