More from my series on the movies. This time we move outside.
DRIVE-IN MOVIES, AKA, “the passion pit.” Where “what was on” had only marginal relevance. Your friends would give you the Monday morning blow-by-blow that was never a review of the film. The point was opportunity, either consummated or not, and with whom. For my own part, I can’t claim to have ever scored a home run, but there was some success in working the basepaths.
Looking back, it was amazing what you put up with in terms of discomfort and lousy performance qualities — and I’m not talking about l’amour. You viewed through your windshield at a screen that was at least a hundred yards away, and typically featured random stains from life in the great outdoors. The audio came to you through a speaker that was hung on the side window, with sound that was far inferior to your own car radio — at least until someone figured out a way to electronically connect both. And if you needed to get or eliminate nutrition, there was that very long walk to the back of the “theatre.”
But it was cheap. At the Del-sego Drive-in near the small town where I grew up, you could go to “buck night,” usually on a Thursday, that would cover a carload. Enterprising high school kids would even throw a couple of rough riders in the trunk, who would come up for air later. Then too, for young parents, the price was ideal, since you could take the kids with you and avoid the cost of a babysitter. Plus, with any luck the younger ones would conk out early and you could enjoy the show. An added bonus: the era of the double-feature was extended, allowing you to load up from the snack bar during the break between movies.
In my early days in California there were four drive-ins in the San Fernando Valley and over a decade I managed to visit them all. All four are gone now, supplanted by swap meets or the ever-growing housing tracts, but when the projectors lights were on, the convenience was outstanding, and did encourage early arrival. You wanted to be there well before the sun set in order to secure a space near the front.
In southern California, of course, it was a year-round deal, although snow country drive-ins did experiment with in-car heaters, which I really did try — but only once. Locally, the winter-time trick was to run the engine only long enough to clear fog from the windshield.
Still a theatrical experience was maintained, albeit with the seats a bit further apart. And unlike viewing inside, you weren’t restricted to what was offered at the concession stand: you could bring your own. One-time friend, Jack C., back in the ’60s, enjoyed his beer, and there was the night that Jack rolled his modified Ford up beside mine at the drive-in and wasted no time diving into a six-pack. Through the first feature what you heard was a pfsst! as he opened each beer, followed ten minutes later by the clink! of an aluminum can as it hit the pavement. Sharing was not presented as an option. We talked the next morning when I called to make sure he made it to his driveway in one piece.
It’s hard to say what killed drive-ins. It may be that patrons for once decided that they didn’t have to spend every waking moment in their cars, or that production values — as opposed to those that were now available in a “walk-in” — such as grainy images were no longer good enough, to say nothing of sound that croaked through a three-inch loudspeaker. Then again, perhaps the novelty — after nearly sixty years — had finally worn off, along with a slowly emerging trend toward the low-brow.
I haven’t been to one in years, but the nostalgic appeal is still there. There was something incredibly easy about saying to your paramour, “Hey, let’s go to the drive-in,” and then firing up the car. And as you moved into the family genre, there was that convenience of what to do with the kids, always an easy sell, depending, of course, on those sinister “suitability” ratings. But it got you out of the house, and in a crazy way, was mildly exciting.
And more, for an insatiable film nut like me, it was a terrific deal: at the drive-in, you got two features for the price of one.