blue law cop car april 1962.png

A police car is parked in front of the marquee sign for the Comet Drive-in as part of an effort to enforce blue laws against the showing of films on Sunday in this photo from April 1962.

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It's possible there is no better symbol of the 1950s in America than the drive-in movie theater. It took the country's mid-century automotive obsession, married it to a timeless fascination with the silver screen, and created the perfect storm of postwar pop culture.

The nation's first drive-in opened in 1933 in Camden, N.J., but the concept was slow to catch on, thanks to the Great Depression and World War II.

But after the war, as American soldiers returned home, bought cars, started families and began living that lifestyle we now think of as "the '50s," the time was right for the drive-in concept to spread. 

And spread it did - by 1948, a handful of drive-ins had grown to 820 across the country. As the Baby Boomers started to become teenagers, the number of drive-ins in America skyrocketed to an all-time high of 4,063 in 1958.

At that time, Lancaster County boasted three drive-ins, and if you're someone who grew up here in the 1950s or 1960s, you likely have memories of attending a show under the stars at one of those theaters.

(Even if you're younger, you may have such memories - Lancaster County didn't fully leave the drive-in era until 2005.)

We took a look through the LNP | LancasterOnline archives to piece together the story of the local drive-in scene. Here's what we found:


1949: Early announcements

first drive-in headline

New Era, July 19, 1949.

The first announcement that Lancaster County would be joining the world of the drive-in theater came in the New Era of July 19, 1949. Harry Chertcoff, owner of several movie houses in the Lancaster area, was planning to build a 1,000-car drive-in about four miles east of the city along Lincoln Highway East, at a cost of about a quarter million dollars.

Chertcoff said he hoped to get the theater open by early fall of the same year. That didn't come to pass, but it still would be the county's first - despite the fact that no less than three more such theaters were soon proposed.

Four months later, in November 1949, Chertcoff announced his plans to build a second theater north of the city, between Manheim and Lititz pikes. Two days later, the owners of York County's Lincoln Drive-in announced plans to build along Columbia Avenue, across from what is now the Lancaster Tennis and Yacht Club. And early in 1950, a fourth drive-in was announced, planned for a spot along Harrisburg Pike just outside the city.

Three of those four proposed drive-ins never opened. But the first one announced ended up being Lancaster County's first drive-in - the Sky-Vue.


1950: The Sky-Vue

sky-vue opening night ad

This ad for the opening night of the Sky-Vue Drive-in appeared in both daily newspapers in Lancaster County on May 23, 1950.

On May 23, 1950, the Sky-Vue theater opened on Lincoln Highway East, at the site of what is now Tanger Outlets. A full-page grand opening ad in both Lancaster newspapers featured congratulatory messages from area businesses that helped construct and supply the theater and its snack bar, and listed the drive-in's amenities, from a playground for kids to bottle-warming services for parents of infants.

What did the ad NOT mention? The movie that would be playing. Perhaps the theater's management believed that the sheer novelty of having a local drive-in would be enough to get people through the gates. (According to the smaller ad on the page of theater listings, the opening night feature - and the first drive-in feature ever shown in Lancaster County - was "The Green Grass of Wyoming.")

Heavy rains prevented a capacity crowd for opening night, but even with the bad weather about 400 cars turned out for the show. Looking ahead to the drive-in's first weekend, the owners released 100 balloons from the roof of the Griest Building, half of which carried free passes to the theater.


1955: The Comet

Comet opening night ad

The opening night ad for the Comet Drive-in, June 22, 1955.

Four years after opening the Sky-Vue, Harry Chertcoff was back in the news, announcing in September 1954 that his second drive-in theater would open the following spring, at a spot along what is no Route 283, near Flory's Mill and Cloister Drive.

comet pre-opening may 1955.png

The Comet Drive-in is seen just weeks before its opening night in this photo from May 1955.

The Comet Drive-in opened on June 22, 1955, with another large ad in local papers, but this time the opening ad included the name of the first movie to be shown - "Rhapsody," starring Elizabeth Taylor.

Opening night was a free show, and the capacity of 1,000 cars was quickly filled, and an additional 400 cars were turned away at the gate.


1956: Columbia Drive-in

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Construction is nearly complete in this photo of the Columbia Drive-in from July 1956.

By the summer of 1956, construction was well under way on the county's third (and, it would turn out, final) drive-in theater. Owned by a Maryland-based partnership, the theater took shape on a plot of land along Route 462 just east of Columbia. 

The Columbia Drive-in opened on Aug. 9, 1956, with little fanfare in the local press - just a small ad announcing the first movie ("A Man Called Peter"), and a short report about opening-night picketing resulting from the theater's hiring of non-union projectionists.


1958-1960: The heyday

psycho ad

By the dawn of the 1960s, local drive-ins were popular enough to be showing first-run, critically acclaimed films, such as "Psycho."

As the drive-in movie craze hit its peak nationally, the three local theaters were all doing a booming business. The drive-in had become a fixture of Lancaster County's social life, for teenagers, adults and families alike.

A few innovations were introduced at this time as well, including "dusk to dawn" shows, which generally included an hour of cartoons followed by as many as five feature films; the whole lineup ended with free coffee and donuts for bleary-eyed patrons to enjoy before driving home into the sunrise, presumably to collapse into bed.

(Here's one example of dusk-to-dawn bills, with such presentations offered at all three local drive-ins. These nights became a common fixture of the local drive-in scene throughout the late '50s and early '60s.)

Some innovations were more short-lived, however, such as the quarter-midget racing series, featuring kids age 4-14 competing in tiny race cars prior to the shows at the Comet Drive-in. This novelty, introduced in 1958, appeared to have been discarded by the next year.


1962: Blue law battle

blue law headline

New Era, April 16, 1962.

In the early 1960s, a battle over whether longstanding "blue laws" should be used to prevent drive-in owners from showing their films on Sundays made the local headlines.

Despite Sunday shows having taken place for more than a decade in Lancaster County, it wasn't until the beginning of the 1962 season that resident complaints spurred local authorities to enforce a law dating to 1794 that prohibited entertainment venues from operating on Sundays unless township residents voted to allow such operation.

That vote to allow Sunday showings came the following year in all three municipalities where drive-ins were operating in Lancaster County, but not before several theater managers were arrested. (By the end of the 1962 season, some theaters opted to open on Sundays anyway, risking arrest and presumably factoring the fine into the operating costs for the weekend.)


Early 1970s: Rated X

columbia porn 1972 rt 30.png

This 1972 photo shows a car parked along the side of the then-new Route 30 roadway outside of Columbia, with the Columbia Drive-in screen clearly visible. At that time, the theater was showing mostly pornographic films, and cars were frequently seen parked along the highway, their drivers and passengers watching the lewdness on display.

As the 1960s wore on, interest in drive-in movies began to wane. Local theater owners began adding all sorts of other attractions to their properties, from dances to rock concerts to a tourist-centric Amish live theater production

By the dawn of the '70s, one local theater owner, Columbia Drive-in's Lewis Weinstock, had switched his theater to showing a slate made up mostly of X-rated films. Neighbors concerned about pornography being shown on a 100-foot screen clearly visible from their properties made complaints, and Weinstock was arrested in May 1972, during a double-feature showing of "Mona" and "Sexterminators." (Charges against Weinstock were later dropped when he agreed to stop showing X-rated films at the drive-in.)


1979-1981: And then there was one

comet empty marquee

The empty marquee says it all - in September 1979, the Comet became the first of Lancaster County's three drive-in theaters to close down.

With drive-in theaters all over the country shutting down by the thousands as large tracts of suburban land became more and more valuable for development, two of Lancaster County's drive-ins closed their gates just two years apart.

On Sept. 13, 1979, the Comet showed its last pictures - a double feature of "Summer Camp" and "Jabberwocky." Two days later, the Intelligencer Journal reported that the property had been sold and would be developed into a terminal for a trucking company.

Then, almost exactly two years later, the final ad for the Sky-Vue ran in local papers, advertising the Kristy McNichol / Dennis Quaid film "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia." The closure of Lancaster County's first drive-in theater was officially announced a month afterward, when the public learned that the end of one era would lead to the beginning of another: The land that had housed the Sky-Vue was set to be developed into Lancaster Outlet City, the county's first outlet shopping mall.


The 1980s: A new image

columbia drive-in 1980s

A couple has all they need - some lounge chairs and a cooler - to enjoy a night at the Columbia Drive-in in this 1983 photo.

Of course, that wasn't really the end of the drive-in era here. The Columbia Drive-in was still open and under new management, having been bought by the Budco theater chain.

Renovations of the physical space as well as a switch back to popular first-run movies was leading to a comeback of sorts. Throughout the 1980s, every couple of years the local newspapers would run a story marveling anew at the Columbia Drive-in's ability to keep plugging away in spite of the onslaught of mall culture, video rentals and cable TV.

Here's an example from 1983. And another from 1988.

But while the Columbia Drive-in lasted a lot longer than Lancaster County's other drive-ins, it wouldn't last forever.


The 1990s: For sale?

columbia drive-in for sale

"The X-Files" was showing when this photo of Columbia Drive-in was taken in 1998. Rumors of the theater's impending sale and closure were a fixture of local news throughout the 1990s.

In December 1994, the first rumors of the impending sale and closure of Columbia Drive-in were reported in the New Era. This began what would be a decade-long process of rumored sale after rumored sale after rumored sale, none of which ever seemed to pan out.

Rumblings of a looming sale happened again in 1998, then again in 2001, then once more in 2005.

That time, they would turn out to be true.


2005: The last picture show

columbia drive-in satellite

This screenshot from Google Maps shows the site of the former Columbia Drive-in, still sitting vacant years after the theater's closure.

The last picture show. Curtain falls. The final cut. 

The cliches might come easy when you're writing a headline for a story about a community's final drive-in show, but for fans of the Columbia Drive-in - or of drive-in culture in general - the loss was far from easy.

Despite the best efforts of a Millersville woman, Stephanie Specht, who collected hundreds of signatures on a petition to save the theater, the Columbia Drive-in shut down forever on Oct. 16, 2005.

The final show was a triple bill, featuring "Shrek," "Spider-Man" and - in an almost-too-perfect touch - "Witness," the Harrison Ford film shot partly in Lancaster County in the early 1980s.

The screen was torn down; the snack bar and gate buildings demolished. But the planned development of the Columbia property never happened. The tract still sits empty, the curved rows of parking spaces once occupied by cars full of families, teenagers and couples still visible as a ghostly grid in satellite imagery.