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Under the stars, at the movies

Against all odds, the region's last remaining drive-in theater still shows two films a night.

Bill Phifer and his family enjoy a movie from their convertible at the Delsea Drive-In, in Vineland, New Jersey on Friday, May 9, 2014. The theater shows two double features on separate screens starting just past sundown. ( Matthew Hall / Staff Photographer )
Bill Phifer and his family enjoy a movie from their convertible at the Delsea Drive-In, in Vineland, New Jersey on Friday, May 9, 2014. The theater shows two double features on separate screens starting just past sundown. ( Matthew Hall / Staff Photographer )Read moreMatthew Hall / File Photograph

VINELAND, N.J. - It's the magic hour just before sunset, and the sandy soil around John DeLeonardis' shoes glows like gold, the sky a bowl of rainbow sherbet. Problems have piled up on this late Saturday afternoon, and soon the spring peepers will quit croaking and the darkness is going to settle over this empty-looking lot in Cumberland County. That's when customers in cars will expect the movie projector to kick on, to send them back like a time machine and fill their night with monsters and superheroes here at the Delsea Drive-In, the last outdoor theater open in the state that started them.

Top on the list for DeLeonardis is a frozen custard machine on the fritz, but it's chilly out so maybe he'll be OK. Then there's the pickup: The tire fell off and DeLeonardis isn't talking a flat or loose tire. It came clean off, rim and all, and that's a project for another day.

Owning a drive-in movie theater in an era when they're nearly extinct and probably impractical is a labor of love for DeLeonardis, although his wife, Judith, says it's mostly just a labor. She's kidding, sort of. Still, DeLeonardis is a pediatrician, not a retired pediatrician, and his movie-night preparation problems get interrupted by things that have nothing do with movies.

"Hello, this is Dr. DeLeonardis," he says, answering his cellphone inside the Delsea's concession stand. "Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Can she move both arms?"

Outside, beyond the fence, one car is already waiting in line by the ticket booth.

Eighty-one years ago, just 40 miles north, where Camden meets Pennsauken, hundreds of cars pulled into the first drive-in theater in America on June 6, 1933.

Richard Hollingshead, a Burlington County native who worked at his father's auto-parts store, came up with the idea to combine two American passions, the automobile and cinema.

Cars got bigger, the movies even grander after World War II and drive-ins popped up all over the country - 4,000 by the end of the 1950s. They've dwindled back down over the last 50 years, thousands of those iconic, neon marquees gone dark after the final reels fluttered from projectors.

The Delsea, on Delsea Drive (New Jersey Route 47), opened in 1949 and closed in 1987 with the movie "La Bamba."

Postwar America also literally paved the way for the demise of the drive-in, as families left cities and ventured out into a new, alien landscape called suburbia. Superhighways supplanted old roads like Delsea Drive, and land values in rural areas began to rise as shopping centers and supermarkets followed the housing developments that continued to spread farther from cities.

"That real estate that was once cheap and on the outskirts of major cities is where the drive-ins were," says Kipp Sherer, a Las Vegas resident who runs "Eventually, the real estate become more valuable than the theater."

While many were demolished for Wal-Marts and storage facilities, the Delsea and others struggled on through the '70s and '80s with the occupants of a dozen or so cars watching slasher flicks on Saturdays until the last ones left and the weeds and trees took root. Teens who had locked lips for hours in the back seat of a roomy Cadillac during a double feature now took their own kids to modern movie multiplexes in compact cars, or stayed home with VHS tapes and DVDs.

DeLeonardis says he was interested in the Delsea Drive-In's land too, not the business, as he looked to build a skate park, where kids could be more active. But when he saw that the screen was still intact, the nostalgia kicked in.

It's been open since 2004 and now has two screens showing four movies a night.

The DeLeonardises, both in their 50s, have been married more than 25 years and all four of their kids have worked at the Delsea in some capacity, whether they wanted to or not.

"Yeah, he's a dreamer for sure," Judith DeLeonardis says of her husband. "I'm not a pessimist, per se. I'm more of a realist."

Out by the ticket booth, Beth Cox, 43, and her son Rodney Morlock, 13, are waiting for the gates to open. They'll be paying $10 apiece to see a double feature of "Noah" and "Non-Stop." Cox is embarrassed at how early she is, but it's better than being backed up on Delsea Drive in the dark.

"The price is right and the food is good," Cox says.

When the ticket booth opens, a time-honored drive-in ritual takes place: searching for stowaways trying to skip a ticket. It's rare, DeLeonardis says, but the world's still full of cheap people.

"Some lady pulls up alone, and she's got three chairs in the back seat and you figure, 'Why's this old lady got three chairs in the back?' " DeLeonardis says. "You hear giggling and stuff, and when we popped the trunk she had her kids in the back."

Sometimes the Delsea charges a fee for "food permits" and families can bring in a pizza or fast food, but DeLeonardis says he lives and dies by the concession stand. He's proud of the concession stand.

By 7 p.m., the smell of buttered popcorn is thick and about two dozen people are standing in line, gazing up at the menu, bewildered by all the choices: egg rolls, churros, chicken parm, pierogies, veggie burgers, along with items that require an explanation.

"What are wingdings?" a customer asks.

"They're like chicken wings," a girl behind the counter says.

The goal's to get customers fed quickly, before the first movies start, so they'll want dessert during intermission. The teens behind the counters are a flurry of spatulas and deep-friers, the orders coming in hot.

"Two hot dogs. Chili cheese fries. Fries!" Gina Testa, 17, yells out from the cash register.

A group of Arcadia University students had come, on a whim, piling into a car and making the trip down Route 55.

"This is how we're spending our spring break," says Daryll Hawthorne, 23.

The Delsea, along with being the only drive-in in New Jersey, is also the closest to Philadelphia. Overall, Pennsylvania's drive-ins have fared well compared to the rest of the country, with 27 drive-ins still operating in more rural areas of the state.

One of them, Shankweiler's in Orefield, Lehigh County, opened in 1934 and is America's oldest operating drive-in.

New York also has 27 drive-ins open. Delaware has none.

"I think there will always be a spot for them, even outside the sheer nostalgia of it all," says Sherer, the online drive-in expert.

Few drive-ins can compete with the sound quality or latest 3-D innovations served up in indoor theaters, Sherer says, but both the ticket and the concessions are cheaper, and there's always a market for a good deal.

"It gets really expensive to take a family out to see one movie, let alone two," he says.

The sun has sunk below the horizon, and the parking lots that fan out in front of the Delsea's screens are filling up. People in long johns and winter hats set up lawn chairs behind their cars, while others configure rear hatches and sleeping bags for the right angle. The Delsea transmits audio through an FM-radio channel and some people are tuning their radios to find the station or realizing they need batteries.

Ozzie Rodriguez, 39, has come well-prepared, methodically cleaning his SUV's windshield with glass cleaner and paper towels, while his daughter Vanessa points out any blemishes from the front seat.

"We've been coming for years, like four or five times a year," Rodriguez says. "It's more comfortable than a regular movie theater."

DeLeonardis hopes that the same nostalgia that hooked him will bring the baby boomers back, eager to make out in a car like they did decades ago. But nostalgia "only gets someone through the gate once," he says, and kids need to feel the magic, too, if drive-ins are to survive.

The new era of digital projectors knocked out more drive-ins in recent years, DeLeonardis says, and if he hadn't sprung for the costly conversion he wouldn't have access to the big spring and summer blockbusters that kids want to see, like "Spider-Man 2." The movies cost thousands of dollars to rent from the studio and they come in a hard drive that simply gets inserted into the digital projector.

"It's easy," he says. "A kid could do it."

At 8 p.m., one screen lights up with movie trailers, and minutes later "Noah" begins. The main screen remains dark for another 15 minutes, although the customers, busy with conversation and cheese fries, don't seem to mind yet.

Suddenly, DeLeonardis bursts from a door and rattles off something about a lightbulb "failing to strike."

"This is what I was saying: There's always something unexpected," he says, then quickly runs off.

A few minutes later, the problem is solved. A beam cuts across the darkness, over the cars and the kids in pajamas, and everyone's eyes turn to see the screen come alive, outdoors, beneath the stars.