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‘I want to reinvigorate it’: Indy’s only drive-in theater gets a new look and new menu

Marcella Snyder, the majority owner and operations manager of the Tibbs Drive-In Theatre, on March 11, 2024. Credit: Enrique Saenz/Mirror Indy

(MIRROR INDY) — Marcella Snyder has been working for years to prepare the Tibbs Drive-In Theatre for a new generation. 

Wider parking spaces, new art along the walls, and an expanded vegan menu — all are part of her yearslong plan to keep Indianapolis’ only remaining drive-in theater thriving.

Snyder, 38, has been the theater’s majority owner and operations manager since 2019, but her history with the drive-in dates back to the late 1990s. That’s when, as a 14-year-old, she started working there every summer. 

When the theater opens this month, it will mark her 25th season. 

She still feels excited about the drive-in experience.

“If you go out right before the movie starts and everyone’s out there having fun and throwing frisbees, it just gives you a really warm, solid feeling in your chest,” Snyder said. “It’s a super warm, super community feeling that you share with 1,200 other people.” 

Growing up at the drive-in

If anyone knows about how families and drive-ins fit together, it’s Snyder. She and her two brothers all worked there for their first jobs. They grew up in the Chapel Hill-Ben Davis neighborhood near the theater on the west side. 

After graduating high school, Snyder added two more jobs so she could pay for her college education. She eventually graduated from IUPUI with a double major in communication and biotechnology. 

In 2018, Snyder became a quality assurance specialist at LabCorp, a clinical laboratory company, where she still works. 

The next year, she and her partner bought the theater.

She has been working three hours a night to prepare the drive-in for its reopening. The long days are worth the effort to get more Indianapolis residents to experience the feelings she and countless others have felt at the drive-in for decades. 

An opportunity of a lifetime

Snyder became owner of the drive-in partly due to her enthusiasm while working there part-time. She gained the attention of the drive-in’s former owners, Ed and Agnes Quilling, who had owned the theater since the 1990s. 

Snyder and her partner eventually agreed to purchase the theater, and the Quillings began training them to be their replacements.

That included dealing with logistical matters, such as ordering and stocking inventory, and more complicated ones that affect what customers can watch at the drive-in and how much they pay for it.

When it’s open, Tibbs Drive-In Theatre shows two movies on each screen per night. Snyder learned that the pairings at this Indianapolis theater are, for the most part, dictated by Hollywood.

“Some studios refuse to pair with other studios,” Snyder said. “Some charge an outrageous amount of money to be paired together. The studios don’t necessarily want to work together. They want all their money for themselves, so each ticket is for two movies because the ticket cost is split between the two studios.”

Some aspects of ticket pricing are beyond their control, but Snyder has tried to keep low the prices they do control, such as concessions.

“Our prices have changed maybe $1 or $2 over the last 20 years,” Snyder said. “We’re trying to keep it affordable for families.”

New look, new offerings

Snyder said the final week before the drive-in opens for the new season will be a busy one. 

Just as in typical years, the crew will handle the tasks that are necessary for everyday operation, such as taking all the kitchen appliances out of storage and preparing the grounds for another season of parking.

But there are some improvements this year, too. The theater upgraded its movie projectors, fixed the roof of the concession stand, and started widening parking spots. 

“It has always been a pain point for people because it is set up for the 1950s with small cars and small pickup trucks,” Snyder said. “We’re losing some parking spaces to make the experience better.”

The theater also expanded its selection of vegan offerings, offering Impossible Burgers, vegan chicken tenders, and other items that are cooked in a dedicated deep fryer. 

Visitors this season will also see new murals that brighten the experience. 

Muralist Jon Stommel, one-half of the art group Rather Severe, painted murals throughout the concession stand. The works on the exterior focus on Hoosier identity, such as corn, cardinals, and Indy cars, while the inside murals celebrate the drive-in experience, such as watching the screen from the back of a pickup truck while feasting on snacks. 

So as Snyder prepares for the final touches ahead of this season’s opening, she’s thinking about a new generation of Indy residents flocking to the drive-in. 

“I want to reinvigorate it,” Snyder said. “I want to make it better — the best that it can be. I want to do more for the community. I want to improve the experience.”

Location and dates

Tibbs Drive-In Theatre is located at 480 S. Tibbs Ave. It will open for the season on Friday, March 22, with showtimes Friday through Sunday. Check the website in the coming days for more details on its showings and schedule.

The first shows will include Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire, director Bong Joon Ho’s Mickey 17 and will later include the horror film The First Omen

Mirror Indy reporter Enrique Saenz covers west Indianapolis. Contact him at 317-983-4203 or Follow him on X @heyEnriqueSaenz