The Empire Drive-In

Mickey (1948)

Opening night June 3, 1949

Hog Wild (1980)

The last advertised movie to appear at the Empire Drive-In was Hog Wild.

It all started back in 1932 when Richard Hollingshead Jr., the son of an automotive chemical manufacturer in Camden, NJ, applied for a patent for the very first “Park-In Theater.” Hollingshead had spent a great deal of time calculating the spacing of cars and the angle of each car row required to provide unobstructed views of the screen. What Hollingshead didn’t calculate was the cost of the films he hoped to play at his theater and the willingness of others to pay him royalties for use of his concept. His patent was granted in 1933, but despite good crowds, he closed the business 14 months later because he wasn’t making any money.

Very few drive-in theaters were built until 1949 when Hollingshead’s patent was voided by the courts. Between 1948 and 1958 over 4,000 drive-in theaters opened in the United States, The Empire Drive-In being one of them.

The theaters became popular, inexpensive entertainment for families and teens, offering movies, food, playgrounds, in some cases miniature golf and other outdoor games.

In the evening hours driving along Empire Blvd., it was difficult not to crane your head and see what was showing on the big screen.

By the 1970s things began to change. Indoor theaters could show movies all day long and weren’t hampered by the weather. Like most drive-in theaters in the north, the Empire Drive-In Theatre was closed throughout the winter. Movie studios began sending their best films to the indoor theaters and second run and lower quality movies to the drive-ins.

In the Empire Drive-In’s last year they showed Animal House (R), Raging Bull (PG), and The Sword and the Sorcerer (R), but they also showed Demonoids (R), Funeral Home (R), X-Rated movies, and finished with Hog Wild (PG).

By 1981, 25% of US homes subscribed to cable television which added financial pressures to the entire theater industry. Believe it or not, HBO began its broadcasts in 1972, Showtime in 1976, and ESPN joined the cable line-up in 1979.

In October of 1982, Loews Theaters (now AMC Theaters) announced plans to buy the Empire Drive-In and replace it with eight indoor theaters (an 8-plex). A short time later, the Empire Drive-In was demolished and construction began on the new theater complex. On December 9th of 1983, The Lowes Webster Theater opened to the public. Scarface, Sudden Impact, Terms of Endearment, and The Right Stuff were all part of the opening night’s fare.

Drive-In Theaters of Western NY

According to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association (UDITOA), as of November of 2022, there were only 302 Drive-In Theatre locations remaining in the United States. We are fortunate to have 7 of those drive-ins here in western, NY.

Elmira Drive-In
2431 State Route 352
Elmira, NY 14903

Finger Lakes Drive-In
1064 Clark Street Road
Aurelius, NY 13021

Midway Drive-In Theatre
2475 NYS Rt. 48
Fulton NY 13069

Silver Lake Twin Drive-In
7037 Chapman Ave.
Perry, NY 14530

Sunset Drive-In
9950 Telegraph Road
Middleport, NY 14105

Transit Drive-In Theatre
6655 S. Transit Rd
Lockport, NY 14094

Vintage Drive-In Theatre
1520 W Henrietta Rd,
Avon, NY 14414

Help support the Webster Museum and look cool doing it!

June 3, 1949

The Rochester made Bernz-O-Matic Drive-In Car Heater once used by the Empire Drive-In during colder months.

Democrat and Chronicle, December 4, 1983