This article was originally written by Lauren Barbagallo. It has since been updated by an additional contributor.
In this era of non-stop technology and social media, a little nostalgia goes a long way. Could anything sound more retro and relaxing than a family or date night at the local drive-in theater? Imagine you and yours cuddled up watching a movie under the stars, listening to it courtesy of your FM transistor radio. It’s a dying (but not dead) art, keeping a drive-in theater afloat these days.
The very first one opened in 1933, when a fellow named Richard Hollingshead set up screen right here in Jersey (Camden, to be exact). People paid 25 cents per car, as well as per person, to see the British comedy Wives Beware.
In the late 1950s, the number of drive-ins peaked at over 4,000. Over time, rising land costs shrunk the industry and today, there are less than 400 drive-in theaters remaining in the country.
New Jersey’s Last Drive-In Theater
Vineland’s Delsea Drive-In Theatre is the last one standing in New Jersey. Built in 1949, closed in 1987 and then reopened in 2004. The husband-and-wife team of Dr. John and Mrs. Jude DeLeonardis bought it after relocating to Cumberland County with their young triplets.
“Our children were the motivation for buying a business. At that time, there were not a lot of affordable options here for family activities,” explains Mrs. DeLeonardis.
Initially, the couple sought out space to build an indoor skate park and even had an architect draw up plans. But when they laid eyes on the serene expanse of land that housed the drive-in theater, they quickly switched gears.
Restoring the theater–and running it–has been an ongoing struggle for this tiny, family-owned business. The owners both have full-time day jobs, and while plaudits are nice (in a 2013 USA Today article, drive-in historian Don Sanders listed it as one of the Top 10 Drive-ins in the Country), they don’t help pay the bills.
“We’ve invested everything we have in this business,” says Mrs. DeLeonardis. “Our lives, our finances, everything we have is tied up in keeping this place running.” Seems courting nostalgia–while keeping up with modern technology–exacts a heavy price.
In 2008, the couple replaced their 35mm projector with digital. They added a second screen, to allow for two movies to show at once. But Hollywood studios receive a healthy chunk of every ticket sold and hold final say over which movies can play simultaneously.
Dinner, Snacks and a Show
To keep the place running, the DeLeonardis family zoomed in another revenue stream: concessions. Their concession menu is extensive, to say the least. You’ll find the usual guilty pleasures to munch on while watching a movie–candy, popcorn and soft drinks. But that’s just the start.
Menu-surfing moviegoers choose from a long list of dinner options including pulled pork sandwiches, teriyaki chicken, pierogies, chicken parmesan and burgers, along with sides such as edamame, chili fries and spring rolls.
There is a lengthy selection of gluten-free, low-carb and vegetarian options, plus delicious desserts ranging from ice cream to healthy(ish) smoothies and chocolate-dipped strawberries.
Kids will love the novelty items that are also for sale. Glow bracelets, flash spin balls, yo-yo lights and more will keep them entertained even if the movie does not!
Kicking the Season Off
Currently, the Delsea Drive-In Theatre is open on Friday and Saturday evenings only.
“Our originally planned opening date of March 16 was delayed due to the persistent winter weather,” said Mrs. Leonardis.
“We were anxious to get the season started. Our primary concern upon reopening was that there would be some unforeseen technical problem arising to ruin our reopening. Thankfully, the weather was not too bad and we did not incur any technical problems.”
The season opened March 30 with showings of Tomb Raider, Ready Player One, Peter Rabbit and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.
Film showings are announced weekly, so follow along on Facebook to stay updated. Once the weather is warmer, additional days and showtimes will be added to the schedule.
Highlights during the summer include Triple Features on holiday weekends, plus the possible addition of “Pet Sundays.” Usually a pet-free establishment, the Drive-In’s owners are looking into allowing pets for one day each week.
One event you do not want to miss is the venue’s Annual Classic Car Cruise on August 4. Old movies and classic cars collide at this fun summer event. Cars must be a minimum of 20 years old.
A classic car movie will play first, followed by a current release. Patrons will vote on the different car categories, with prizes awarded to winning car owners throughout the event.
- Hero (Top) Feature Image (& Additional Images): © Delsea Drive-In Theatre