Escape to the Past at Tibbs Drive-in Theatre

This piece is part of a series of articles submitted to The Local Tourist through a cooperation with a 400-level travel writing class at Purdue University.

By Lauren Pannell

Instead of our usual dinner outings or ice cream runs, my friends and I decided to go vintage for one of our Friday night girls’ night out.

We jumped onto Interstate 65 down to the Southside of Indianapolis to Tibbs Drive-in Theatre for an old school take on the typical movie night. 

Drive-in movie theaters are an iconic piece of American culture. Thanks to Richard Hollingshead of New Jersey, the first patented drive-in theater opened for business in 1933.

At the height of the car boom in the early 1900s, drive-in movie theaters offered Americans another excuse to spend time in their motor vehicles.

First drive-in theater in Camden, New Jersey

Despite being 20 years old at the time, drive-in movie theaters saw their peak popularity during the 1950s and ’60s. While they served as a great spot for family fun, the teens and young adults of the Baby Boomer generation primarily enjoyed them as an affordable date night option.

Drive-in movie theaters can be seen as settings for movie scenes in films such as “Grease,” “The Outsiders,” and “Brokeback Mountain.” 

In 1967, The Tibbs Drive-in Theatre jumped on the radar as a single screen theater located on the southwest side of Indianapolis. In order to keep up with the competition, United Artist Theatres, the original owners, added two more screens within the first five years of opening.

During this peak time, there were as many as 5,000 drive-in theaters nationwide and 18 of them were in the Indianapolis area alone.

Over 50 years later, The Tibbs Drive-in is one of the last remaining drive-ins in Indiana and in the United States. 

Tibbs Drive-in Movie Theatre, photo by Lauren Tibbs
Tibbs Drive-in Movie Theatre, photo by Lauren Tibbs

Drive-in movie theaters are a dying breed. Some predict they will be obsolete within the next decade or two.

It is estimated there are 300 drive-in theaters, most of which are privately owned. Some states, including Hawaii, North Dakota, Wyoming, Alaska, Delaware, and Louisiana, do not have a single drive-in theater still operating today. 

Despite the decline in popularity for outdoor theaters, Ed and Agnes Quilling took on the challenge when they purchased Tibbs Drive-in Theatre in 1995.

Since they took ownership, the Quillings have worked diligently to keep up with modern convenience and technology while upholding the historical integrity. Some of their updates include adding a fourth screen, remodeling the bathrooms, and updating the digital projection. 

https://www.facebook.com/TibbsDriveInTheatre/photos/a.10151010399412423/10154607182472423/?type=3&theater

An $11 ticket at Tibbs Drive-in allows you to see a double feature. With four screens, my friends and I had eight total movie options to mix-and-match.

Once the first movie is over, we were free to stay for the second movie showing on that screen or move our car to a different screen for a different movie.

My friends and I were excited for both movies showing on our screen and didn’t want to go through the hassle of moving cars around or take the gamble of moving. There is no guarantee you’ll have great seats if you move, but it is hard to complain with such a great 2-for-1 offer available. 

Shows at Tibbs Drive-in start at dusk, but the lines on Friday and Saturday can be so long that it is recommended to arrive at least an hour early to get in, get a spot, and get situated.

Since we visited Tibbs on a Friday evening, we arrived an hour and a half early and had no issues getting in and finding a decent view. We chose to stock our car full with our own snacks and beverages, sans alcohol though per Tibbs policy.

https://www.facebook.com/TibbsDriveInTheatre/photos/a.387448582422/387448867422/?type=3&theater

However, the concessions available at Tibbs are next level. Standards such as buttery popcorn, soda fountain drinks, and candy are paired with made-to-order pizzas, soft-serve ice cream cones, and funnel fries. 

https://www.facebook.com/TibbsDriveInTheatre/photos/a.387448582422/387448852422/?type=3&theater

Once we found our parking spot, we had to choose to either stay inside our vehicle, pop open the trunk and watch from there, or set up our own lawn chairs tailgate-style in front of our car.

Pro tip: Leave your grills at home, because Tibbs Drive-in Theater does not allow any open fires.

We had borrowed my friend’s dad’s pick-up truck to create a comfy nest of blankets and pillows inside the open bed of the truck.

Do not forget bug spray unless you enjoy getting eaten alive by mosquitos.

Most importantly, to avoid unintentionally watching a silent movie, check to ensure your car radio is functioning or bring an external radio in order to tune into the FM station associated with your screen. We downloaded a radio app on one of our phones and hooked it up to a portable speaker so we didn’t wear out the car battery. 

While a drive-in movie night is a great opportunity for a twist on your typical dinner and a movie, an outdoor theater experience means that Tibbs Drive-in is at the mercy of Mother Nature.

This is not your haven to escape inclement weather, and they close during the winter months. Their operating season runs from mid-March to the end of October.

After our outing in the middle of October, we made it our mission to return back to Tibbs during the summer months to enjoy another drive-in experience. Because at Tibbs, it is more than just seeing a movie, it is about a one-of-a-kind experience with people you care about. 

As one of the last 300 operating drive-in theaters in the country, Tibbs Drive-in provides the Indianapolis area an escape to the past while enjoying the movies of the present under the stars.

Learn more about Tibbs Drive-in Theatre, visit tibbsdriveintheatre.com.

Tibbs Drive-in Theatre is located at 480 South Tibbs Avenue, Indianapolis, IN 46241

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