Friday, August 3, 2007

American Nostalgia: the drive-in theatre

Tonight I went out to cover a free “drive-in” movie at a church for my column. It was not a “drive-in” in the traditional sense because while people did drive to the event movie-goers had to get out of their cars and sit on lawn chairs or blankets while watching the show. You see the movie screen was hung on the end of the picnic shelter which was too far from the parking lot. Still being out there and watching families get set up with snacks and so forth to watch a movie out-of-doors brought back a lot of memories.

One American memory at its most nostalgic is the drive-in movie theatre. Today the drive-in movie is not always linked to the idea of wholesome family entertainment because of the notorious scandals that have plagued a few. However, back when I was a kid everybody went to the drive-in movies all summer long. The drive-in was a great social gathering place even if it looked like everyone was isolated in their cars like little islands.

Many drive-ins, if not most, had playgrounds and grassy terraces where people could set up their lawn chairs in front of the car park to socialize until dark and even watch the movie. There were speakers on poles flanking each side of the screen so the sound could be heard by those not using the car speakers. Since everybody went to the drive-in all your friends would be there and it was cool hanging out until the intermission. After intermission most of the younger kids, who came with their parents or someone else’s parents, were expected to stay at the car, if not in it, for the rest of the movie.

Back in those days management expected patrons, especially kids, to be quiet and behave so all the movie-goers could enjoy the movie. Any driver who could not control the occupants of his car (because as a rule it was dad who took the family to the movies in those days) was shown the lane to the exit. One theatre we frequented would actually ban people who made a habit of creating a disturbance during movies; and the town was small enough that they knew everybody on sight.

My earliest movie memories come from those drive-in theatre days. The first movie I remember seeing was Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. I remember it was a really, really long time to be in the car; don’t forget I was only 5 or 6 at the time. Other early films that come to mind are Bambi, Singing in the Rain, and The Absent-Minded Professor (the original, please). The last movie I saw at a drive-in was the original Star Wars at a theatre on the north side of Colorado Springs in 1978 or 79 just before it was pulled from distribution the first time.

That was nearly 30 years ago but America’s drive-in movies, while a mere shadow of the former industry, are not dead yet. In just a 5 minute surf of the web it is possible to flush out websites with memorabilia, lists of theatres active and gone, and an owners’ association. Even in my area, where it once seemed that every crossroad sported a drive-in theatre, there are currently about 10 operating drive-ins between 30 and 40 minutes drive offering primarily family movie fare.

So do you have any drive-in movie memories – G-rated please? Have you ever watched a movie at a drive-in? Please share it in the comments and don’t forget to check out the links for some cool drive-in facts, memories and trivia.

Here’s a sample of related websites, but there are pages and pages to be searched for:

Drive-In Theatre - memorabilia site and lists of theatres
United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association - Information for and about owning drive-ins
American Drive-In Movie Theatre - includes a trailer of the film Drive-In Movie Memories


Shelby said...

I went to a drive in once - it was hard to hear.

very intersting post !

Scribbit said...

I LOVE drive ins. They don't have them here--too light in the summer too cold in the winter. But I used to get a thrill when we'd go to one at college.

AuthorMomWith Dogs said...

I remember the first time my parents took us kids, there was a double feature; some Disney dog movie and a Doris Day, Rock Hudson movie. We had a station wagon and my parents made a bed for us in the back, so we could sleep during the late second movie. It was wonderful.

We have a drive-in not two minutes from us, but the experience is not the same now.

Margaret Cloud said...

In the fifties the drive in was the in thing. Later when my kids was old enough to understand what was going on in the movie we made a night of it. The kids wanted me to cook hamburgers and wrap them in foil, and take cookies and chips, to this day over thirty years later the kids still mention those wonderful Drive In times. Margaret in Michigan