A&E: Reel relic Tibbs keeps the drive-in dream alive

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In this column, I usually write about content, not containers; arts software, not the hardware; the creative stuff, not the bricks and mortar.

But in the case of the drive-in movie, context is everything. The specifics of what’s on screen aren’t nearly as important as where you are. The magic is in the air, not the flickering images.

And it’s been that way for 75 years this month.

On June 6, 1933, the first drivein theater opened in Camden, N.J. (It’s long gone, but the second drive-in, Shankweiler’s, is still open in Orefield, Pa.) Nicknamed ozoners by industry newspaper Variety, the no-top theaters peaked in the 1950s, with nearly 5,000 locations across the country.

Now they are an endangered species, numbering around 800, with Indiana hanging on to a handful, including the Starlite in Bloomington, Canary Creek in Franklin, and Tibbs Drive-In on Indy’s west side, 480 S. Tibbs Ave.

I’ll confess that I’m hopelessly irrational about drive-ins. I have green memories of high-school dates (don’t ask about “Cujo”) and group outings, of Frisbee catches between shows and friends sneaking in through flawed fences (No, I never did the pal-in-the-trunk move, although I’m pretty sure my brother did).

My hallway at home features photos of my kids on the roof of our car, big screen in the background (an annual tradition that we foolishly let lapse when they started becoming teenagers). Watching them get older in such a timeless environment makes those photos really powerful for me.

And thanks to the persistence of Tibbs, I have indelible images of my son falling asleep on the hood of our car as Indiana Jones fought his way to hidden treasures.

I’m still amazed by how many Hoosiers I find who don’t know that we have this gem in our own back yard. Or how many selfproclaimed movie lovers haven’t experienced this particular form of movie love.

For those who haven’t, know that Tibbs offers double features on four screens. The evening starts with a cinematic presentation of “The National Anthem” and the playground still attracts early birders, the better to wear out the kids. The sound doesn’t come from the traditional metal window-attachable speakers but from your own radio. The snack bar is extensive and the popcorn fine. The countdown film between features is as retrokookie as you remember it.

These days, families with young kids seem to be the audience that is most likely to take advantage of what the drive-in offers. And smokers. There are lots of smokers. Groups of teens also flock here, but I didn’t look close enough inside the cars to see if the “passion pit” label still applies.

At Tibbs, two movies will set you back $9 for adults, $5 for kids 4-12.

Bring bug spray. Take memories.

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