Behind New Jersey’s Last Drive-In Theater

The Garden State gave birth to the drive-in theater. The Delsea is alone in keeping the tradition alive.

delsea drive-in theatre
The Delsea Drive-In Theatre Photo by Scott Lewis

[Editor’s note: With the easing of some pandemic restrictions, the Delsea Drive-In Theatre’s 2020 season is now scheduled to begin Friday, May 22. All tickets must be purchased online in advance. Vehicles will be parked six feet apart. Concessions will be open for pickup only; face coverings must be worn when approaching concession stands or using the restrooms.]

Going to a drive-in movie was a special part of growing up for Jude DeLeonardis. Her dad would bring her and her sisters to the S-3 Drive-in on Route 3 in East Rutherford.

“I mainly enjoyed going out in my pajamas, eating snacks in the car and being out of the house,” she recalls.

As a kid, Jude probably didn’t know the drive-in was invented in New Jersey. But as a grownup, Jude and her husband, John “Doc” DeLeonardis, are keeping that legacy alive as the owner/operators of the Delsea Drive-In Theatre, the Garden State’s last of the breed.

Nestled in the woods off busy Route 47 in Vineland, the Delsea is a relic of a time when people had to leave the comfort of home to see a first-run movie. In its 1950s heyday, the Delsea was a hot spot for families, couples and love-struck teenagers. People could watch a movie under the stars and hold their special someone a little closer.

Patricia Martinelli, the curator of the Vineland Historical and Antiquarian Society, has fond memories of the Delsea.

“When I was about 10 years old, I piled into the back of my cousin’s Buick with other kids and we went to the Delsea,” she says. “I can’t remember the film, but we had such a great time. When I was older, I used to go there to make out with boys and not watch the movie.”

Back then, dozens of drive-ins dotted New Jersey. They were integral to the suburban lifestyle. Today, the Delsea exists only because of Doc and Jude and the dedicated audience they serve.

“There will always be people who yearn for something different,” says Doc. “They recognize the virtue, the purity of the drive-in, the intangible benefits like memory-making. Some call it magic. And it is.”

Drive-ins were once a huge business in the United States. Richard Hollingshead, a native of Riverton, opened the nation’s first, the Camden Drive-In on what is now Admiral Wilson Boulevard, in 1933. He charged 25 cents per car and 25 cents per person. The concept took off after World War II. By the early 1950s, there were 4,000 drive-ins across the country.

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Milton Smith opened the Delsea on April 29, 1949, with the film Drums starring Raymond Massey. The Delsea stayed open through several owners until going dark in 1987. Again, it was emblematic of a trend. As of August 2019, there were just 317 active drive-ins left in the United States.

The Delsea was still closed in 2003, when DeLeonardis bought the land from a Cumberland County businessman.

It took almost a year of work to get the Delsea into shape for the 2004 reopening. Jude remembers looking at her husband on opening night as hundreds of nostalgia lovers and curiosity seekers lined up in their cars for tickets to see a double feature of The Bourne Supremacy and Anchorman: The Legend of Tom Burgundy. Doc smiled at Jude and said, “It’s a nice night for a drive-in.”

delsea drive-in theatre

Doc DeLeonardis and his wife, Jude, reopened the Delsea Drive-In in June 2004. They’ve updated the drive-in experience with in-car audio and healthier food options. Photo by Scott Lewis

Since the reopening, Doc has rebuilt the snack bar and modernized the projection system several times. In 2011, the couple spent $280,000 to install a huge array of solar panels that now provides two-thirds of the theater’s electricity. The installation also took up some parking spaces, reducing the capacity to 400 cars for the first screen and 200 for the second.

The clunky metal speakers that used to hang outside each car—now sought-after antiques—are long gone. Nowadays, people listen through their car radios on a low-powered frequency. 

Running the drive-in is not easy.

“It’s a battle every day,” says Doc. He notes that any theater is dependent on the quality of available films and the terms it can get from studios. But as a small businessman, he also struggles with the rising minimum wage and insurance costs; a lack of qualified help; and “the public’s expectation of modern-day contrivances.” Not to mention the weather.

* * *

It’s not like drive-ins are all Doc knows. When the 63-year-old Jersey City native is not tinkering with cantankerous equipment, running the projector or selecting next week’s films, he is a practicing pediatrician with the Complete Care Clinic in Bridgeton, Millville and Glassboro.

For years he ran his own medical practice. Looking back, he wonders how he managed to work “100 hours a week” and still operate the drive-in with Jude.

“I guess I just never slept,” says Doc. “Now, I only work at the clinic 40 hours a week. I feel like I’m retired.” (The couple’s four children, including triplets, are now grown. Doc says son Drew is the drive-in’s biggest fan, and all of the children help out when they can.)

The Delsea would normally open for the season as soon as the weather allows—in March or April. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the 2020 opening was delayed until Memorial Day Weekend. There’s no doubt that loyal customers will be back—and the curiosity-seekers, too.  

Chances are, they’ll all come hungry.The Delsea serves fresh, scratch-made fare, including Jude’s asparagus stir fry (a bargain at $5.75), eggplant parmigiana, cucumber chicken salad wraps and shrimp or chicken teriyaki. 

Of course, you can also order more traditional fare like burgers, hot dogs, pizza and popcorn. “That’s our stock in trade,” says Doc, “though some people like our more healthy dishes.”

The concession stand is an essential part of the business model. “We make our money on concessions,” says Doc. “We charge reasonable prices, but some people want to bring in their own food and beverages. That would kill us.”

In addition to banning outside food, the Delsea forbids the consumption of alcohol, once a common activity at the drive-in. Cigarette smoking also is banned, except in a designated area.

* * *

Tickets to the Delsea are $12 for adults and $7 for kids ages 4–11. Pets are admitted free on Saturdays.

Most of the clientele comes from South Jersey or the Philadelphia area, although drive-in enthusiasts make the trip from all over. The closest drive-in to the Delsea—Shankweiler’s in Orefield, Pennsylvania—is 100 miles away. It’s America’s oldest existing drive-in, dating to 1934.

Anthony Cruz, 23, and Julia Jones, 20, from Hammonton, are regulars at the Delsea. “It’s a nice ride into the country,” says Cruz. “We climb into the back of the truck and watch the movies under the open sky.” The two caught the debut of Joker last fall at the Delsea.

Gary and Daneta Gingham, of Vineland, have been regulars at the Delsea since it reopened. “We bring our blankets and love to cuddle while we watch the movie,” says Gary, 64. “We have children, but they don’t come with us. This is our special time.”

Cuddling was also on the agenda in a nearby pick-up truck where 6-year-old Andrew Schmidt watched the night’s other feature, Abominable, with his grandmother, Tracy Hoffman of Fairton.

“I get to spoil my little grandson once a month,” says Hoffman. “We call it our date night. We have a bucket of popcorn, blankets and are going to have a good time.”

That kind of review helps fuel Doc and Jude’s determination.

“I don’t think we’ll ever retire,” says Doc. “We’ll just keep on.”  

Michael Sangiacomo is a retired newspaper reporter from the Philadelphia area. He is the author of the award-winning graphic novel, Tales of the Starlight Drive-In.

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