When Jake Cordova, 20, was a high school senior in Las Vegas, the Fort Union Drive-In, where he worked part-time, threatened to close. Film studios were no longer supplying new 35-millimeter prints, and converting to digital projection was too expensive for the theater’s owners. But Jake wasn’t ready to give up on the local landmark. “If it wasn’t for the drive-in, there wouldn’t be nothing for the younger generation to do around here at all,” he says.

So he did what any enterprising teenager would: He bought the whole joint. In 2014, Jake and his grandfather, Felipe Cordova, upgraded the Fort Union’s facilities and got the word out to the community that the beloved drive-in would once again be showing movies all summer.

Now in its third season with Jake as general manager, the theater is thriving. “I talk to everyone who comes through, ask them where they’re from,” says Felipe. Visitors make the trip from as far away as Las Cruces and Amarillo, Texas, to catch a screening under the stars. “It’s one of those things that provide a real family outing.”

While Felipe takes tickets at a flat-rate bargain of $20 per carload, Jake mans the projector and oversees operations. His mother, June Martinez, is in charge of concessions, which include the usual popcorn and candy along with local favorites like Frito pie. “We sell the best pizzas ever,” Felipe says. “We have people who call in and say, ‘We can’t make it to the movies tonight, we just want some pizza.’ We go ahead and let them in.”

During summer months, the drive-in shows a double feature every night from Thursday to Sunday. The first screening starts shortly after dark and there’s a break afterward to grab snacks. Instead of piping audio over vintage car speakers, the audience tunes in on car radios, which allows for a little more range of motion. “People bring their pickup trucks with couches in the back,” Felipe says. “It’s great to see so much enthusiasm for the drive-in experience.” (505) 425-9934; on Facebook

Of the dozens of drive-ins that once lit up New Mexico evenings, Carlsbad’s Fiesta Drive-In Theatre is the Fort Union’s only fellow survivor. Originally opened in 1948, the three-screen venue shows movies from Friday to Monday in a lot that can accommodate more than 600 cars. (575) 885-4126; on Facebook 

Want more like this? Subscribe now!