The Lost Adventure of the Fly-in Theater

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Drive-in Sign

An aviation pastime whose time may have come again

Drive-in movie theaters seemed, until recently, to be a thing of the past. Rising to peak popularity in the ‘40s and ‘50s, they went from being everywhere to all but dying out. The one located here in San Luis Obispo is one of the few still running in the area. During their heyday, a special type was created that not many know about, the drive-in/fly-in theater. 

In 1948, former navy pilot Edward Brown Jr. created the first combo theater by bulldozing the field next to a New Jersey airstrip (using a WWI tank, of all things). In the next few decades, he opened another in nearby Manahawkin, and the idea spread to Massachusetts, Iowa and other towns on the East Coast and Midwest. Fly-in theaters became spots for pilots to bring their families for a night out.

These theaters were built on airfields with access for both cars and planes. Cars came through the street entrance and parked close to the screen, while aircraft would taxi to the back row. Pilots and their passengers could either watch from inside the cockpit or under the wings. They could order dinner and be served right at their plane from the on-site restaurant. 

When drive-ins started going out of fashion in the latter half of the 21st century, the few fly-in theaters were closed and never reopened. The demand, however, did not go away. Movie fly-ins have become a regular feature of the general aviation community.

Jolie Lucas, regional vice president of CalPilots on California’s Central Coast, has been hosting movie nights at the Oceano airport for the past ten years. Pilots and locals bring chairs and watch a film projected on the side of a hangar. Dinner and snacks are available with proceeds usually going to a charity. The real draw of these events is not just the movie but also the chance for both pilots and the local community to enjoy an evening with family and friends.

Now, all of a sudden, drive-in theaters are experiencing a resurgence in popularity (to such an extent that Walmart has even started using their parking lots to show movies). They have become the perfect outlet for people searching for a place to entertain the family. Due to the lack of new movie releases, they are playing old movies, adding to the nostalgia, and people are flocking to see them. With the new demand for an old tradition, now may be the best time to bring the drive-in/fly-in theater back. 

It would be not only a better excuse to go flying than a $100 burger, but a reason to bring the whole family. What better way to watch Top Gun than from your plane? It wouldn’t just be a draw for pilots either.  For the general public, watching movies alongside planes would be a unique experience. The time may be just right for the next Edward Brown Jr. to start the new wave of fly-in theaters.

In the meantime, if you want to join those rediscovering a nostalgic pastime, check out our local Sunset Drive-in next time you fly through San Luis Obispo.

Sources: cinematreasures.org and wired.com

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