WEST NEWTON, Pennsylvania — As the sun dipped below the horizon of the Laurel Mountains off in the distance of the Evergreen Drive-In Theater, families with children were spread out on their sleeping blankets in front of their cars. A cluster of couples were sitting in folding chairs, enjoying each other’s company.
Then, they all stood and placed their hands over their hearts. They joined together in singing the national anthem as it was played across all three screens.
They remained standing and sang along with the images on the screen to Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to be an American” immediately after that. Seasoned attendees can always tell who the newbies are to the experience — they’re the ones moved to tears and wonder on their faces.
It is a scene repeated over and over again seven days a week before each movie; I have been hard-pressed to find anyone, young or old, who refuses to participate. When the music starts, everyone immediately stands up and sings. It is and remains a truly remarkable and moving experience for anyone who consumes the news or social media on a regular basis.
Equally rare is a night, any night, when the Evergreen Drive-In isn’t packed. There are often several dozen cars waiting in line at dusk, hoping there will be enough room for their family or their group of friends to attend this night’s showing.
The minute you pull up with your family or friends, there is a sense of community all around you — very different from the sterile atmosphere at a traditional movie theater. Everyone here has bought into the experience of spreading out a blanket and chairs and taking in a movie under the stars, downing some concession food and even meeting some new friends during the show.
The Evergreen Drive-In got its start in 1947 as the Ruthorn Drive-In. Its opening made the front page of the local newspaper with the headline “Capacity audience at Opening Night; Drive-In Theater.” The story gushed that the first drive-in theater in Westmoreland County drew people from all points across this county and Fayette County, with ushers escorting each car to its space.
The Ruthorn Drive-In opened in the industry’s infancy just two years before Richard Hollingshead’s 1933 patent for “Drive-In Theater” was to expire. Subsequently, the drive-in industry exploded. In 1949, the same year Hollingshead lost his patent, Ruthorn became the Evergreen and has been so ever since.
It was here during the heyday of B-movies that splashed across the screens on pastures across the Midwest, Appalachia and both the Pacific and Atlantic coastlines; it was a rite of passage for the American family (as well as lusty teenagers) to spend at least a dozen weekends at a drive-in every summer.
The ’60s were the golden age of the drive-in, peaking with more than 5,000 outdoor screens across the country. Now, that number is at around 500, according to numbers calculated by the United Drive-In Theater Owners Association.
The Warren family, which has been in the drive-in business since 1949 and owns seven other such drive-ins in the area, purchased the Evergreen in 1999. Two years later, they added two additional screens, and they began showing first-run movies a year later.
This week, if you get here in enough time, you have your choice of “Thor: Love & Thunder” and “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” on screen one, “Minions: The Rise of Gru” and “Elvis” on screen two, and “Jurassic World: Dominion” and “Top Gun: Maverick” on screen three.
Adults pay $10 for admission, ages 6 to 12 pay half-price and children under 5 are free. It’s cash only, and you must follow the rules: no cussing; the speed limit is 5 mph; no alcohol; and don’t even think about littering.
In an era filled with new stories and social media posts listing grievances and reasons to hate living in this country, places such as the Evergreen Drive-In, where they celebrate America, are more common than you think.
Last week’s Gallup poll showed that America’s love of country is at an all-time historic low. A dwindling number of Americans, just 38% now, are “extremely proud” to be Americans. That’s down from 70% just after 9/11 and before the boom of social media.
Perhaps the question lacks nuance. People’s views on politics and government and the current state of the nation may have muddled many people’s answers. But I’m guessing that the answers at the Evergreen Drive-in would be remarkably different if you asked the same thing. Even with love of country falling out of fashion with our cultural curators (the people in power in news organizations, Hollywood, corporations, government, politics, institutions, academia and Big Tech), many, many people out there remain deeply proud to be American.