RUSKIN, Fla. — As the Ruskin Family Drive-In approaches its 70th anniversary, the owners fear that nearby development could put them out of business. 

What You Need To Know

  • Ruskin Family Drive-In fears that future development nearby could put them out of business

  • Other local drive-ins have closed due to the ambient light from nearby developments making it hard to see the screen

  • Hillsborough County has a zoning board meeting on Dec. 3 regarding future development to the east of the Ruskin drive-in

  • The theater is approaching its 70th anniversary in April

Planted just yards away from U.S. 41 in Ruskin, the drive-in has been going strong since it opened in 1952. Owner Ted Freiwald has managed a number of drive-in theaters over his 88 years and says he’s seen many of them go out of business because of ambient light caused by new shopping centers, apartment buildings, and homes. When too many trees are cut down or buildings are constructed too high, the light shines into the outdoor theater and makes it hard to see the screen. 

He fears that the Ruskin Family Drive-In will be next. 

“I personally was at the graveyard of burying three drive-ins over here locally that didn’t make it because of ambient light from 3 story apartments built on the side of them,” Freiwald said. 

After a blockbuster year during the pandemic, Freiwald says the tone started to shift when he noticed a team of surveyors on the property in September. Weeks later, dozens of trees along the east side of the theater were tagged with red tape. 

Freiwald and his wife then received a letter from Hillsborough County informing them of a zoning board meeting regarding future development to the east. 

Freiwald says he tried to avoid this problem by protecting the theater with rows of trees in 1957. He says he planted dozens on the north and south sides, as well as some on the east. With a thick layer of woods on the east side, he says he tried to purchase a few dozen feet of land from the former owner to protect the wooded area but was told he didn’t need to. 

“They said this has always been a farm, will always be a farm,” he explained. “Just cattle and tomatoes, so we’re never going to sell you any property because you’re not going to need it.” 

It seems never has arrived. 

Freiwald’s plan is to continue operating the theater as usual until they learn more. 

A meeting of the zoning board is set for December 13. 

For their 70th anniversary in April, they plan to play Singing in the Rain with Gene Kelly. That’s the first movie that aired on opening night in 1952.