Using New Technology to find drive-in theatres
By: Wesley Horton
July 2004

Tracking down old drive-in theatres always presents challenges.  When a drive-in has been closed and the years have passed, it can be very difficult to find such locations.  However, there is a way to find them.  Using a number of available information sources, it is possible to locate almost exactly where a drive-in was and to leave that “address” for future generations.

One of the modern miracles of today is a byproduct of the Defense industry.  During the late 1970’s a program was hatched which would allow a soldier, and later a civilian, to know his exact location anywhere on the globe to within a few feet.  The system, called GPS for global positioning system, started to come into the realm of reality during the 1980’s.  

GPS works from a constellation of satellites orbiting the earth.  Each satellite constantly broadcasts a signal which allows a handheld receiver to determine exactly where it is located in terms of latitude and longitude.  The typical receiver is handheld, usually about the size of a cell phone.  Typically prices run from $100 to several hundred dollars.  


These are a few commonly available hand held GPS units.  Garmin makes the first two; the Etrax line runs from about $100.00 to $250.00.  The Lowrance iFinder can be had for around $150.00, while the Magellan Meridians run around $200.  

GPS units are of two general types: mapping or non-mapping.  The Geko, which runs around $100, does not have mapping capability.  It can record a specific location called a waypoint and navigate to any know location (waypoint).  Mapping GPS units have the ability to display a base map of the area you are in as well as your waypoints and a trail.  If you look at the Etrax above, you see that it has a base map which shows a few features as well as waypoints.  The iFinder also has a basemap which shows roads as well as cities and towns..  

So, what does all this have to do with drive-in theatres?  One thing that has become apparent over the years is that things change.  Sometimes cities renumber streets and the address that was correct in 1953 is not the same as the address in 2003.  As you know, many drive-in theatres were built at the edge or outskirts of urban areas and towns. Often, the city grew, and in the process encompassed the drive-in theatre.  The drive-in theatre closed or was sold and some new purpose was found for the much more valuable land.  

One thing has remained constant.  Every place on the face of the earth can be identified by its unique address listed in Latitude and Longitude.  Drive-in theatres have physical addresses, such as 3101 N.W. Highway, or approximate addresses such as “Just off May Ave.” and Latitudes and Longitudes, such as  N. 35º 31.796  W 97º 34.378  Allow me to illustrate.  The drive-in theatre I have just located is, or more correctly was, the Northwest Highway drive-in of Oklahoma City, Ok.  It was the first drive-in theatre to actually open in Oklahoma City.  A copy of the opening ad gives the following information:

Opening ad on July 2, 1947
Final ad September 15, 1979

As you can see, it gives the location as “Just off May ave.”  Now, this may have been intuitive in 1947 when there was nothing else there, in 2004, when it has been gone for 20 years, it could be anywhere.  A later check of City directories gives two separate addresses over the years, one at 3101 N.W. Highway and a later address of 3215 N.W. Highway.  
So, what gives?  Why the two differing addresses?  Well, simply put, at some point during the 1960’s, the City of Oklahoma City renumbered some of the streets.  In the process of doing so, some businesses were left with new or different addresses.  It caused as much confusion back then as it does today.  

So, how do we find out where the thing really was?  Enter another invention of the our age, the internet.  The internet has made so much information easily available.  It will allow you to do today, what would have taken days and several trips to obscure libraries and historical societies to find the same information.

Internet resources of today

Let us take a look at a few of the resources we can now use to help track down old drive-in theatres, especially in some place where you have never been.  Let us begin with a not too difficult drive to find.  We are going to use the Altus Drive-in theatre, which was located in Altus, Oklahoma.  A trip to the microfilm library, using methods previously discussed, has found the following for the first ad of the Altus Drive-in theatre:

Topographical maps, what are they and what are they good for?

Many years ago, the United States government realized the importance of detailed and accurate maps of the regions.  One of the types of maps that the federal government started to accumulate was a Topographical map.  A topographical, or Topo map, shows information about elevations, mountains, streams, rivers and buildings.  Typically, these maps are reissued ever 20 or 30 years.  Of interest to us are maps that were made during the 50’s and 70’s.  

One very handy site on the internet is  Here you will find topographical maps of the entire United States.  When you go to, you will find a link in the upper left hand corner entitled “view maps.”  Clicking on this map will take you to a search engine for specific locations.  You can enter city or town names as well as places.  When you enter a location which is not state specific, it will return a list of probable locations.  For instance, if you enter “Altus” it will return a list of all the locations in the United States called Altus.  Of the four listed, we are interested in the one in Oklahoma.

The search for
Altus, Oklahoma returns the following:
1398 feet  

Since this is what we want, we click on it and it returns a topographical map, generally at the geographical center of the town.  The first thing you will notice when you click the link is that there is a small map.  I click on Large Map Size on the left hand side and usually leave the scale at 1:50,000.  Looking down on the left hand side, you will see the Coordinate format.  It is generally easiest to use this in the DD.DDD format.  This shows locations as Degrees Decimal . decimal. . .  at the very top of the map, you will see the location and quad information given as:

34.6381°N, 99.3340°W (WGS84/NAD83)
USGS Altus Quad

This information tells you the exact address given as latitude and longitude for the location of the cursor on the map.  In this case, the cursor starts at the geographical center of the map.  When we first see the map, there is no drive-in theatre shown.  Looking at the scale at the bottom of the map, we have a rough idea of how far we need to go.  Most distances in opening ads are from what was considered the center of the city.  In this case, we press the button on the Right side of the map to move the map to the East of the city. In short order, we hit pay dirt.  Just East of the city, we see:

When we put the crosshairs on the little dot in the center of the drive-in theatre, and left click the mouse, two things happen: the map centers around where we have placed the cursor and returns the latitude and longitude at the top.

Making use of Satellite photography

We are now going to utilize another data set on the internet.  Many of you have discovered Terra server.  While Terra Server is handy, the information may be retrieved in a more usable form at a web site called  When you go to, you will find the appropriate links on the left side of the screen.  You will want to use the map feature under map maker.  Click on this link.  Cut and paste the location information from Topozone, (at the top of the page), in this case:

34.6364°N, 99.2961°W

and paste it into the manual coordinates on the map maker page.  You will want the Longitude number, in this case 34.6364 and the Longitude number, 99.2961.  Set the map for larger (1000 x 1000) and resolution to 2m per pixel.  When we open the satellite photo, we find this picture:


We can now see that at least on the day this picture was taken, there were some remains of the drive-in at the site.  We can go back to the topo map and move the cursor to the entrance of the drive-in and once again cut and paste the latitude and longitude into the map maker at  When the picture comes up, we can find out if our coordinates for the entrance to the drive-in are correct:  When we enter the new coordinates, we find that it is indeed accurate.

What is unique about this use of technology is the fact that it gives me more information.  I had made a call to the Altus police department in March of '97 and was told that the drive-in had been torn down and that Bar S Sausage now occupied the site.  The above photograph shows that the new Sausage plant was actually built to the East and South of the drive-in and that part of the theatre remained.  

Putting it all together

The use of latitude and longitude make it possible to guide any person to any point on the planet.  You can now lead others to the locations of the old drive-in theatres.  Additionally, it will make it much easier for you to find the location yourself.  Instead of having to ask everyone or rely on old maps, you can enter the latitude and longitude as a waypoint and your hand held GPS will guide you there.  

When you use a GPS to navigate to a waypoint, the GPS can show you the information in one of several ways.  You can use a navigation screen which will give you a compass heading and distance to your waypoint, or you can have the way point displayed on a map.  As you move, your position is constantly updated on the map.  You can see where you need to go to get to your destination.  

There you have it, a few new resources to track down the drive-ins of old.  Now I realize it has been years since my last column, but not that much has changed.  You still have to do the research and leg work, but the information is out there.  Good luck and good hunting!

You can find some other great resources for GPS by visiting the following links:

GPS navigator magazine
GPS nuts, A good guide
A handy guide to GPS location by addresses

This can lead to a whole new hobby; take a look at Geocaching

And especially this Geocache (we're not the only ones interested in Drive-ins)

Drive-In Archaeology, part 1
Part 2
Part 3