What exactly was the obsession with the Drive-In Movie? Was it really that much more economical than building a theater? Was it our 50s love affair with the car? You know, drive-in restaurants, drive-in movies, drive-in necking at make-out point. the list goes on, followed by a much needed trip to the gym to unload that extra padding in the posterior caused by never getting off the freakin’ bench seat.
While I’m sure Wikipedia could supply all the answers, it was on a whim earlier this summer that I went elsewhere online to find out if there were any Drive-In Theatres left in Washington state.
After all, I first saw Star Wars on a Drive-In screen. though not the screen I was SUPPOSED to be watching, mind you; we were there in 1977 to watch The Shaggy D.A., but my brother and I kept turning around and watching the screen behind us to the right, catching glimpses of Darth Vader while bad Disney live-action comedy sputtered out of the speaker hooked on the car window. Today, however, I was pretty sure our local Drive-In theaters had all transformed from outdoor cinemas to swap meets, and from swap meets to the site of the latest Home Depot (coming soon!).
Much to my surprise, there were two throwback theaters within reasonable distance still operating during the summer of 2007. (There’s a great website that supplies a lot of information on these drive-in dinosaurs, many of whom seem to have web-pages built in the Jurassic period that are hard to find using search engines). Not only had they avoided being transformed into a strip mall or warehouse store, the one nearest me was showing Transformers, right after the kid-friendlier feature Ratatouille. Somehow, watching Autobots in my automobile seemed appropriate. Unpacking my clip-on mullet and slapping a cowboy hat on my wife, we threw folding chairs in the CRV and headed for Everett and the Puget Park Drive-in.
There are times in my life where I feel like a true sociologist exploring a foreign culture, an outsider trying to avoid the spotlight and observing the natives in their natural habitat. As we pulled up to the ticket window, a large sign laid down the rules of the drive-in, most of which were forgettable but one which will forever stick in my mind: NO PUBLIC URINATION. It really wasn’t the mandate itself that made this memorable, it was the parenthetical which accompanied it. The full sign read:
NO PUBLIC URINATION (going to the bathroom outside)
Having to post the rule is funny; needing to define it was side-splitting.
My wife and I were the odd couple as we parked the CRV forward, with the windshield facing the massive screen. Most people had brought pickups or minivans, parking backward to watch the movie from their truck bed or with the van’s hatchback popped open. Tailgate parties were in full force, and the large concession hub barbecued and made “expressos” until dusk. The smell of nachos, burgers, sno-cones and ice cream filled the air, and all the other olfactory traditions of a State Fair. For those who haven’t been in decades, you no longer hook a cumbersome “speaker box” on the side of your car. The drive-in broadcasts the film’s audio on a radio band, and you simply adjust your car stereo to the frequency. Sadly, people forget that this will drain their battery; complementary jumps are offered to those whose car won’t start when the credits roll.
The demographic seemed pretty diverse, honestly… big families with a gaggle of kids, construction workers catching a movie after a long day’s work, local high schoolers holding hands awkwardly on a cheap date. I was lost in people-watching for a while… and it was minutes before the movie that I realized that thick tree sap from our fir tree at home had left blotchy deposits on our windshield, and I raced to scrape the sludge from our field of vision before the previews commenced. The gigantic projector, with its long, telescopic lens, rumbled to life. It was like hearing the battle cry of the last Tyrannosaurus Rex…
… and it was 1977 again.
Only with better special effects.
My wife Kat overheard a conversation with a grizzled, middle-aged drive-in employee. “You’re still here,” the movie-goer commented. “Yeah,” the man answered, revealing he’d worked the drive-in for over ten years now, “every year they say “this is the last year’ but every year they keep it open.” With the first film starting at sunset nearly 9:30 I realized that Optimus Prime’s sage voice wouldn’t even resonate until almost 11:30, and we were slated to be sitting at this celluloid throwback until two in the morning. I had to confess that the drive-in wasn’t the only thing getting old.
Facing a late night if we stayed through both flicks, I did the only sane thing I could do in the situation like that: I adjusted the seat, bought coffee and Bon-Bons, turned the engine on so the battery wouldn’t die, and wondered if there were any drive-in restaurants open after two.