Flint's US-23 Drive-In offers a 'reel' nostalgic movie experience through the summer

FLINT, Michigan — It’s a familiar pastime for many; a fond memory of yesteryear – it’s the drive-in movie theater. Believe it or not, Michigan still has a number of drive-in movie theaters showing blockbuster movies. One of them is the US-23 Digital Drive-In is located right here in Flint. 

The US-23 Digital Drive-In is located at 5200 Fenton Road and provides the perfect backdrop for a family outing, date night, or a nostalgic walk down memory lane.

Originally built in 1951 by Mr. Lou Warrington, US-23 Digital Drive-In General Manager Johny Thomas says the company took over the double-screen theater in 2009 after Mr. Warrington passed away. After purchasing the theater, the company added a third screen and various updates.

“We have put a lot of T.L.C. back into the theater,” Thomas says. “We put a fresh coat of paint on everything, and the third screen allows for more variety in the movie showings. We expanded the concession stand menu, added chicken tenders, curly fries, mozzarella sticks, rootbeer floats, icees, corn dogs, and third-pound grilled fresh Angus burgers.”

Other renovations to the retro theater included bringing the space up to date with handicap restrooms and updated digital projection and sound equipment in 2013.

Thomas says the digital projection far outweighs its film predecessor when it comes to picture quality. “Back in the days, everything used to run on film reels,” he says. “Sometimes you’d see blotches on the screen, or scratches and lines. With digital, the picture is going to be sharp, crisp, and triple HD.”

The theater opened for the season back in mid-April for the weekends and will remain open seven days a week now until Labor Day. Double-feature movies start around dusk and include a ten-minute intermission after the first set of movies. 

The lot holds about 1,000 cars and typically gets full during the summer weekends. During the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, the drive-in actually saw an uptick in movie-goers cruising in.

An overhead view of the US-23 Drive-In.
“Drive-ins were pretty much the only thing allowed to open for several months, so we did see a boost in attendance,” he says. “However, a lot of things still affected us like prices on supplies and having to provide a lot of PPE equipment like masks and gloves for the staff, extra cleaning procedures, and extra staff to help keep the place clean and extra sanitized. We were grateful for being open, but the supply chains and with social distancing, we were only able to open at half-capacity, so our max was around 425 cars because we would normally fit two cars in one spot. During the pandemic, we only put one car there, so that didn’t help. We’d sell out on a Saturday night and have to turn down some people, so it was definitely challenging.”

Thomas says the atmosphere of the drive-in theater is like nothing else and makes for a perfect family stay-cation, a weekend getaway, or a weeknight date night under the stars. He recommends some tips to get the most out of the experience.

“If you enjoy the outdoors and want to enjoy the movie outdoors, prepare for being outside,” he says. “Bug spray is a good idea, a blanket if it’s a little chilly once the sun goes down, and some lawn chairs. Some people throw an air mattress in the back of their pickup truck bed. You can get pretty creative, as long as you stay in your space. You can put the chairs in front of your vehicle. A lot of people bring their SUVs and sit on their tailgates.”

Thomas recommends getting there early, especially on a busy Saturday night, to get a good spot. “A lot of people come when the gates open at 7:30 p.m. and bring activities to do until showtime. Maybe bring cornhole, or any kind of activity to stay busy for a couple hours.”

The drive-in discourages moviegoers from bringing outside food since they have a fully-stocked concessions stand on-site, which Thomas says, “is really what keeps us going, allows us to pay the bills, turn a small profit, and keeps us motivated to keep the place open.”

The outdoor space makes a great alternative to a traditional indoor theater and provides fresh air and a safe distance between other moviegoers. 

“There’s nothing like it,” Thomas says. “You can be in the comfort of your own car. If you want to talk, you can talk and you won’t bother anybody. There’s still enough space in between other people where you can still have a conversation. You can bring your kids, you don’t need a babysitter. A lot of them fall asleep after the first kid movie, and parents can stay and watch a movie after.”

Despite showing new releases and using high-definition digital projection equipment, the overall atmosphere of the drive-in still evokes a nostalgic feel.

“People that grew up when the drive-in was first being built in the ‘50s, now are grandparents and taking their kids and grandkids,” Thomas says. “A lot of memories are shared, and it brings back a lot of memories.”

Thomas is grateful for the support they’ve received from the Flint community over the years and hopes the drive-in can continue on for decades to come. 

Admission is $11 for adults and $7 for children. Updated movie showtimes are available online or on their Facebook page. Portable radios are available for a $3 rental fee.

Read more articles by Sarah Spohn.