How many drive-ins are left in Missouri?

Drive-in theaters were once a popular form of entertainment, allowing people to watch movies outdoors from the comfort of their cars. At their peak in the late 1950s, there were over 4,000 drive-in theaters across the United States. However, with the rise of indoor multiplex theaters and changing tastes in entertainment, drive-ins saw a steep decline over the following decades. Today, only about 300 drive-in theaters remain in operation in the entire country.

Brief history of drive-in theaters

The drive-in theater concept originated in the early 1930s, as a way to attract moviegoers during the Great Depression. The first patent for a drive-in theater was filed in May 1933 by Richard M. Hollingshead, Jr. He experimented with different projection and sound techniques in his driveway before opening the first drive-in theater in Pennsauken Township, NJ on June 6, 1933. It was an immediate hit, able to hold over 400 cars. Hollingshead’s innovation spread quickly, and by 1945 there were over 96 drive-in theaters in America.

Drive-ins peaked in popularity in the late 1950s to mid 1960s. Their giant screens, tinny speakers, and snack bars serving hot dogs and popcorn created an iconic movie-watching experience. Being able to bring the whole family in pajamas appealed to the postwar demographic shift to the suburbs. Drive-ins were also cheap entertainment, allowing entire families to see movies for the price of one indoor ticket. The number of drive-ins in the U.S. swelled to over 4,000 by 1958.

The decline of drive-in theaters

The rise of television in the 1950s and 1960s was the first blow to drive-ins. Indoor theaters also began offering widescreen Cinemascope movies, high-quality sound, and features like air conditioning. Drive-ins were unable to match these conveniences. Land owners increased the rent on large tracts of land needed for drive-in lots. Suburban growth led to light pollution that interfered with screens. Drive-ins were also dependent on good weather.

By the 1970s, drive-ins were closing at a rate of about 200 per year. Those that survived did so by fitting more smaller screens on their land. Others turned to gimmicks like karaoke nights or flea markets during the day. A brief revival occurred in the late 1970s with the success of movies like Star Wars and Grease. However, the VCR and cable TV sapped audiences again through the 1980s. In 1984, there were only 2,880 drive-in theaters left nationwide.

Current status of drive-ins in Missouri

Today, Missouri clings to its remaining drive-in theaters as beloved icons of Americana. The state once boasted over 140 drive-ins during the 1950s and 60s. Now only a handful remain to serve Missouri’s scattered rural communities and small towns.

Here is the status of known operating drive-in theaters in Missouri as of 2023:

Drive-in Theater Location Status
Starlite Drive-In Cadet, MO Open
Skyway Drive-In Theatre Lodi, MO Open
Galena Drive-In Galena, MO Open
61 & W Drive-In Theatre Macon, MO Open
Sunset Drive-In Aurora, MO Open
Barco Drive-In Marceline, MO Open
Stars & Stripes Drive-In New Bloomfield, MO Open
Route 66 Drive-In Carthage, MO Open
Blue Starlite Drive-In Cape Girardeau, MO Open

Based on this survey, there are only 8 known drive-in theaters still regularly operating in Missouri as of 2023. A few others may open occasionally for special events or weekends. The above drive-ins are spread around the state, from Aurora in the southwest to New Bloomfield in the center to Cape Girardeau in the southeast. Most are located along highways and rural routes far from major cities.

Reasons for drive-in closures in Missouri

At their peak, Missouri had around 140 drive-ins dotting the landscape. The vast majority – over 130 – have closed over the last 50 years. Many factors contributed to this trend:

  • Rising land values – Drive-ins require large tracts of land located close to highways and towns. As land values increased, the rent or sale of drive-in lots became more profitable than operating them.
  • Construction of highways and development – New highways and suburbs encroached on drive-in lots. Light pollution made screens harder to see.
  • Walmart effect – Small town business and entertainment dried up with the rise of national big box stores and chains.
  • Increasing indoor theater competition – Multiplex cinemas offered more choice, comfort and conveniences.
  • Home entertainment options – Cable TV, VCRs, DVDs, and streaming made movies at home more appealing.
  • Weather dependency – Rainy or cold conditions kept moviegoers away.

These factors made running a profitable drive-in theater difficult. Many Missouri drive-in owners chose to close up shop by the 1980s rather than try to compete with indoor theaters and home entertainment. A few stalwart drive-ins managed to hang on by catering to nostalgia and their community role.

Profile of a surviving drive-in – 61 & W Drive-In Theatre in Macon

To understand what it takes for a drive-in theater to remain viable today, it helps to look at one that continues successfully operating in Missouri. The 61 & W Drive-In Theatre in Macon represents the determination required.

Located on the north side of Macon along Highway 63, the 61 & W Drive-In dates back to 1952. Throughout the heyday of drive-ins, the theater prospered showing double features on its two screens. The rise of indoor theaters in Macon during the 1970s and 80s threatened its survival. In 1978, owner W. F. Callaway added a third screen to allow showing more variety.

Callaway fought to keep the drive-in alive as patrons dwindled. He converted the theater from film to digital projection in 2013 to access more first-run movies. When Callaway passed away in 2016, it was questionable whether the 61 & W Drive-In would live on. But its reputation as a local institution led Callaway’s daughter to reopen it.

Now operated by the non-profit Callaway Foundation, the 61 & W continues showing hot new releases every summer weekend. Its bright neon marquee shines as a beacon of American nostalgia. With personalized service lacking at big chain theaters, the 61 & W retains loyal customers. Its giant screens and FM sound attract moviegoers from miles around Macon. The drive-in also hosts events like classic car shows to give back to the community.

The story of the 61 & W Drive-In illustrates the factors needed for drive-ins to survive today:

  • Dedicated, flexible ownership willing to evolve with the times
  • Investments in upgrades like digital projection
  • Prime location near highways with easy access
  • Strong community roots and engagement
  • Offering amenities beyond just movies
  • Focus on great customer service

These attributes allow classic drive-ins like the 61 & W to compete with modern home and indoor theater experiences.

Unique aspects of drive-ins still appealing to audiences

Why do these few drive-in theaters in Missouri continue drawing devoted crowds decade after decade? Their vintage atmosphere and rituals offer something special lacking at indoor multiplexes:

  • Nostalgia – Drive-ins represent a glimpse back in time to many, evoking nostalgic feelings of coming as a kid.
  • Unique experience – Watching movies under the stars provides a magical feeling you can’t replicate at home.
  • Social atmosphere – Drive-ins are more social, letting viewers relax, talk, and move around during the show.
  • Value pricing – Getting a double or triple feature for one affordable price deal remains appealing.
  • Fun traditions – Drive-in traditions like carload entry, playgrounds, snack bars, and speakers create a fun vibe.
  • Community feel – Small town drive-ins offer a friendly community night out lacking at impersonal indoor chains.

These distinctive attributes continue to draw devoted crowds to Missouri’s surviving drive-in theaters each season. Their nostalgia and quirkiness simply can’t be replicated by modern theaters.

Future viability of drive-ins in Missouri

Can these remaining drive-in theaters survive in Missouri into the future? Their era as a dominant entertainment medium is certainly over, but the unique drive-in experience appears poised to hang on with the right strategies:

  • Embrace technology like digital conversion to access first-run movies
  • Diversify by hosting concerts, festivals, flea markets, etc. to generate revenue
  • Invest in quality projection, screens and sound to compete with home theaters
  • Appeal to young families and film buffs looking for unique experiences
  • Play to nostalgia and vintage appeal through marketing and events
  • Develop loyal customer bases in small town communities
  • Offer creative programming like classics, cult films, and alternatives to multiplexes

Drive-ins also remain an affordable way for low-income families to enjoy movies together. As pressures of modern life and technology increase, the nostalgic escape of drive-ins becomes more appealing. By embracing their retro roots while innovating with new attractions and programming, Missouri’s surviving drive-ins can retain devoted fans into the future.


At their peak decades ago, Missouri hosted around 140 drive-in theaters that provided beloved outdoor entertainment. Rising land values, indoor theaters, home entertainment and changing tastes led to the demise of most drive-ins by the 1980s. Today, only about 8 drive-in theaters continue operating across Missouri, mostly in small rural locations. Led by stalwarts like the 61 & W Drive-In in Macon, they fight to remain viable by investing in upgrades, appealing to community nostalgia, and providing distinctive experiences. The remaining drive-ins seem poised to survive into the future by emphasizing their retro appeal and adapting with creative innovations. Though their heyday has passed, Missouri’s classic drive-in theaters persist as flickering icons of American nostalgia.