Last year I posted about taking my son to his first drive-in. As I’m sure you could tell, drive-in theaters are special to my wife and I; they’ve been a part of our lives from the start and we’re happy to have the chance to introduce our young son to the experience. Many, and perhaps most, of you reading this don’t even live near a drive-in and may never have experienced a movie in one. They’re not only a unique movie viewing experience, but generally speaking, they’re a unique social event. This post is for those of you who’ve never experienced one, and for those who have drive-ins as distant memories.
I’ve never been to a drive-in that doesn’t default to double features. At a place where there are multiple screens, like here in Las Vegas, it’s not uncommon to have a screen dedicated to a single feature for a variety of reasons, but the double feature is kind of the norm. You pay one price, something less than a single viewing in most metropolitan theaters today, and get to see two feature films. Some drive-ins charge by the person, but many charge by the car. That’s right, you pay a set price for bringing the car into the theater regardless of whether you’re alone, or the car is loaded with your friends like a VW loaded full of circus clowns! No matter what, it’s a good deal.
For lack of a better description the ground is wavy in front of the screen, with the waves forming rows. These are set up to let you park your car with the front end slightly elevated so there’s less of a chance the cars in front of you will block your view of the screen. In days past, and certainly during my youth, the parking rows were also peppered with evenly spaced little posts. At the end of each was a speaker box on a wire. You parked next to the post and hung the speaker on your car’s window. The boxes were always made of some sort of metal, seemed to weigh enough that your window was at risk of structural failure, and contained a pretty poor excuse for a speaker with a rheostat to control the volume. That’s right, a single speaker: mono. But somehow it was always good enough. The only real risk the speaker caused was when you absent-mindedly got out of the car in haste to get a snack or hit the bathroom, forgot the speaker was hanging from the window, and closed the door hard. The speaker would bang on the glass and if you did this hard enough, you’d replace the window the next day. What seems to happen much more often is someone decides to drive away during, or quickly after the movie ends and forgets the speaker is still attached. New window! I haven’t seen these speakers in decades though. Now, at the few remaining drive-ins scattered around the country, the theaters have licenses to broadcast on select FM frequencies. You park, tune your car’s stereo to the appropriate frequency for your screen, and enjoy the movie with the best audio your stereo can provide. This makes the movie experience even better and eliminates an age-old problem with drive-ins: missing significant parts of the movie’s audio when you go to the snack bar or bathroom. Now, no matter what you’re doing, you can hear the movie very well, especially when the weather is good and windows are down.
Then there are what I call drive-in rituals, three of which I’ll mention here: headlights and horns, the playground, and parking backwards. First, there’s the headlights. They don’t warrant a lot of explanation other than to say at least once during the movie someone ends up turning their car’s headlights on without realizing it--usually inadvertently while distracted--washing out some portion of the movie screen. If they don’t realize it quickly, other patrons begin blowing their cars’ horns until the offender realizes what’s going on and turns their headlights off. Second, there’s the playground. Playgrounds seem to have always been a fixture at drive-ins, often located beneath the movie screen. Kids who might grow bored with the movie, or just cant sit still through both features, could play within site of their parents. Seeing kids play in front of and beneath the screen used to be common. The drive-in near us now has five screens arranged in a modified star shape around a single building housing the projection booths, snack bar and bathrooms. Rather than having five playgrounds, there’s one located next to the building. It’s less than desirable and wasn’t being used when we were there, presumably since it’s more difficult to watch their kids and the movie at the same time. The playground is still there though, as a part of what makes a drive-in theater. Finally there’s parking backwards to watch the movie. Whether you’re there on a date or even with your kids, folks with the right kind of car often park backwards with back seats down and hatch back or rear gate open. You can sit or lay to watch the movies. We use to take our pickup truck to the drive-in, park backwards and sit on blankets or lawn chairs with a cooler next to us. As you make your way to the bathroom or snack bar, it’s common to see young couples parked this way, lost in each other’s company more than the movie.
I’d like to wrap this up by sharing the lyrics of a song by one of my favorite musicians. On his 1991 album “Western Underground”, Chris LeDoux paid tribute to this dying piece of physical and cultural architecture with his song “The Last Drive-In”. Enjoy the lyrics and I hope you’ll find the song and give it a listen too.
It’s great to be a dad!
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The Last Drive-In
A caravan of yellow eyes came crawling across the plains
Rolling along in single file like a slow moving train.
It rumbled down out of the mist into the early morning light,
Said they stay till the job was finished if it took them till midnight.
Well there were cats and scrapers all caterpillars packed up by mile high crane,
And it looked like monsters from the old b movies the drive-ins use to play.
And we'd sang goodbye Saturday under the stars,
Wake up little Suzy in my daddy's car.
So many memories got lost and found
When a piece of history hit the ground,
The day they tore the last drive-in down.
Memories thick as the smoke clouds they made, man and machine became one.
Boards snapped like toothpicks on their blades but to us it sounded like guns.
Cowboys, soldiers, gangsters and thieves, James Bond and his golden girls.
Well you could sit in your car and never turn the key and go half way around the world.
And it stood like a landmark for forty years we never thought we'd live to see
It fall it to the ground and then just disappear like so many childhood dreams
And we'd sang goodbye...
A lot of the drivers had tears in their eyes but I don't think it was just the dust,
See I still believe there's a little piece of that old drive-in left in all of us.
Nobody moved through what seemed like hours, and slow motion it came tumbling down,
We just stood there with a taste of metal in our mouths and a silence all around,
The day they tore the last drive-in down.
And we'd sang goodbye...