Franklin Drive-In remains a slice of Americana

Cash Hankins, 9, Emma Hankins, 10, and Adam Vincent, 9, sit on top of their dad’s truck before the showing of “Dolphin Tale 2” at the Franklin Drive-In on Saturday, Sept. 13. Tyler Essary/HERALD

Sam Osborne

Drive-in theaters have made an indelible impression as an American icon since the first one opened in Camden, New Jersey in 1933. The drive-in theater has been portrayed as a make out retreat for teenagers in film and music, from the iconic film “Grease,” to Bob Seger and The Silver Bullet Band’s hit 1976 single “Night Moves,” where two teenagers jilted their teenage blues by “tryin’ to make some front page drive-in news.”

The outdoor theaters hit their peak in the 1950s and 1960s, when nearly 4,000 were in operation. Only 335 are currently up and running in 2014, according to

While drive-in theaters have increasingly started to vanish, the Franklin Drive-In in Franklin, roughly 25 miles south of WKU’s main campus, is still very much alive.

Gary Price is the co-owner and operator of the Franklin Drive-In. His family acquired the drive-in from its original owners in 1989. Price said he prides the Franklin Drive-In on having a friendly, family atmosphere.

“It is family-owned and operated and we are only the second family to operate it,” Price said. “We like bringing good family entertainment and good first-run movies to the south-central Kentucky and northern Tennessee area.”

Many drive-in theaters across the United States have been forced to close because the movie industry has stopped providing 35mm film to the theaters, forcing them to move to digital projection. The cost to move to digital is approximately $80,000.

“It is a pretty hefty price tag,” Price said. “You have to remember most drive-ins are seasonal businesses and family operated and it’s a big stretch to go out and purchase a digital system.”

The Franklin Drive-In, which first started showing films in 1969, opened their 2014 season in March with new digital projection technology, and Price said the improvements have helped business.

“It’s kind of rejuvenated it a little bit,” Price said. “If we’re able to bring a good quality product like digital picture and digital sound, then many people, they come out and try out the experience.”

Kolton Kepley has worked the concession stand at the Franklin Drive-In for four years and said the theater is integral to Franklin’s identity.

“I think the town loves it,” he said. “I don’t know what we would be without it. It’s a huge part of the town.”

Heather Jarmon started working the Dip and Dots this year at the Franklin Drive-In and said the theater is one of the biggest attractions in Franklin.

“We don’t have a lot here for kids or adults or families to do,” Jarmon said. “I think it’s pretty important for families to have. It’s been a big part of my life growing up and it has been for my kids too.”

    Tom and Judy Melton relocated from Michigan to Bowling Green in February and the Franklin Drive-In has quickly become one of their favorite weekend attractions.

    “We like it because you don’t have to dress up like if you’re going to a regular theater,” Judy said. “We can bring our own food, bring our pets, it’s just a more relaxing atmosphere for us here.”

    The drive-in theater season begins in March and generally runs through November, with weather conditions playing a huge role in how long they stay open.

    Price said the drive-in experience is one that caters to families, but also to young people who haven’t experienced a movie the old-fashioned way.

    “It does appeal to young people, because they do like to go out and socialize and have a good time,” Price said. “That all revolves around the idea of how drive-ins were built and how they have survived so far.”