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Going to the drive-in theater—pulling into the perfect spot, dropping the tailgate, and setting up the truck bed with a plethora of pillows and blankets before a big-time Hollywood flick airs in the starlight—might soon be one for the history books.
Once a common staple of local entertainment, just about 300 drive-in theaters remain in the United States as of November 2022—and only seven in Colorado. The first one opened in New Jersey in 1933, and the open-air format quickly became widespread, reaching more than 4,000 venues across the country, including Colorado’s first: the Monaco Drive In, which debuted in Park Hill in 1950. By the late ’70s, however, more than 1,000 of the institutions—including the Monaco—closed their gates as owners began to cash in on the value of their land.
The trend has only continued, and soon, the city of Denver will be without a drive-in theater for the first time in 70 years.
Following the closure of the Denver Mart Drive-In in 2021, the metro area was left with just one drive-in theater: the 88 Drive-In in Commerce City. But after more than half a century in operation, it, too, will shutter after this summer, the owners announced in June.
Deidre Ortega, an assistant desk manager at the Star Drive-In in Monte Vista, blames the rise of streaming services and what she views as an increasingly antisocial generation. “People don’t want to go to theaters anymore, or even go rent movies,” she says. “Socialization is just shutting down.”
Stephanie Webb, owner of Fort Collins’ Holiday Twin Drive-In, remains hopeful, though. The problem isn’t the viewer, she says, but more often than not, the owner. The upkeep of a drive-in theater is significant, between obtaining the film reels for scheduled screenings, running what is often a full-service restaurant, loading the film rolls into the projector, and managing the staff, among others. If the owner is, say, reaching retirement age, Webb explains, they “look at what their real estate is worth and probably think, Why am I doing this?” But for owners like Webb who are still passionate about preserving the nostalgic experience, the still-constant stream of viewers is reason enough, she says, as the Holiday Twin consistently sells out weekly shows.
The Webb family has owned and operated the Holiday Twin for more than 40 years, since Stephanie’s late husband, Wes, purchased the Fort Collins theater in 1979. A private pilot and the owner of several drive-in theaters in Utah at the time, Wes was into flipping the lots. He’d buy drive-ins and run them as the film venues they were intended to be—rather than immediately redeveloping the land—for a few years while the value of the property increased.
Wes sold off the rest of his drive-ins for profits, but his wife convinced him to hang onto the Holiday Twin. “It’s not because I’ve enjoyed staying up ’til three in the morning or smelling like popcorn grease, but more so because it’s such a staple in the community,” she says. “I knew that Fort Collins would really lose something that residents enjoy and support. So I said, ‘We can make this work.’”
When Wes passed in 2019, Stephanie continued to operate the theater with their two sons, hosting hundreds of movie-goers every night. This summer, the Holiday Twin has even reaped the benefit of audiences returning to movie theaters en masse for July’s historic box-office hit Barbie, offering special Barbie-themed drinks and photo ops for the occasion and drawing as many as 5,000 patrons in a single weekend.
Still, on-site concession sales and tickets for $9 a pop will never make as much profit as the real estate is worth, Webb says. But she doesn’t mind. The hope is to keep the experience the same as it’s always been for folks like the married couples who had their first date at the drive-in and the families who gather there every summer. “People want to be a part of something,” Webb says. “And that’s what the drive-in offers.”
Colorado’s 7 Remaining Drive-In Movie Theaters
Next time you head out to see the newest blockbuster, grab a burger from the commissary, toss a flying disc with a neighbor as the sun sets, and slide into your bucket seat to watch the double feature under the night sky.
The highest drive-in theater in the country at 8,000 feet, the Comanche plays single feature movies in front of the pointy skyline of the Collegiate Peaks. Grab some popcorn prepped in a machine as old as the drive-in itself, and relax as the much newer 4K projector fires up the screen. Movies run every Friday through Tuesday during the summer, and if Colorado weather cooperates, every Friday through Sunday in September. 27784 County Road 339, Buena Vista
After the closing of both Denver Mart Drive-In and Cinderella Twin Drive-In in Englewood, the 88 Drive-In is the final such theater in the metro area. But not for long. Catch a digital or 35mm film at the last original pull-in theater in Denver, and grab a bite from its historic Snackbar before the iconic, 6.5-acre establishment shutters for good at the end of summer. 8780 Rosemary St.
Find the oldest drive-in theater in the state tucked in its southwestern corner. Pamela DeVries Friend, the daughter of the original owner who built the outdoor cinema in 1950, took over the drive-in at only 18 years old and has been working there ever since. Designated a historic landmark by the county in 2021, the theater still practices special, old-timey traditions like its annual Back to the ’60s Night and Classic Car Show double feature event every June. 600 E. Miami Rd., Montrose
A fire in the concessions building in the 1960s couldn’t end this southern Colorado theater’s run (nor could more than five changes of ownership since it opened in the ’50s), so pay a visit in the name of longevity. Some 400 vehicles fit, and Tru Vu airs double features seven days a week, so the options are virtually endless. Also cool: Movie viewers can feel the vibration of the coal train as it makes its way behind the venue almost every night. 1007 Colorado Highway 92, Delta
After 88 Drive-In closes its doors for good, this Fort Collins staple will be Denverites’ closest option for retro, car-serviced cinema. The Webb family, who has owned the outdoor theater for more than 40 years, finds no problem filling the two-screen venue—cars line up at dusk and usually spill out onto Overland Trail—so plan on arriving early. 2206 S. Overland Trail, Fort Collins
Make a trip out of this one: The Star is attached to the Best Western Movie Manor hotel about 200 miles south of Denver, where you can overlook the big screen from the comfort of your room or car, with films typically showing from March through October. The Movie Manor has an on-site restaurant and movie memorabilia gift shop, too. 2830 U.S. Highway 160, Monte Vista
The second-oldest drive-in in Colorado, Pueblo’s Mesa is known for its two digital projection screens, which show current releases every weekend. One screen plays family-friendly flicks while the other trends more R-rated, but the owners also sneak in a fun agenda of classics, so check the schedule before making the drive. Make sure your evening of movie magic is complete with classic candy or ice cream treats from the snack bar—or savory bites like nachos supreme and burgers smothered with Pueblo green chile, of course. 2625 Santa Fe Dr., Pueblo