Long Live the Drive-In Movie!

The number of drive-in theaters has dwindled, but a surge of open-air screenings has preserved a quintessential summer treat

If it’s summer, somebody somewhere is watching a movie at a drive-in theater. Too bad there aren't as many as there used to be.
You remember the drive-in. It was probably located on a big, flat lot somewhere at the edge of your hometown. Now, chances are a Wal-Mart or an apartment complex sprouts from the site, or it has been repurposed as a flea-market venue.
Some drive-ins that went dark long ago are still out there, like relics of another age. All that's left is a giant screen, its white paint peeling and gray, overshadowing neat rows of parking meter-like poles to which individual speakers were once attached.
According to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association, an industry group, the cinema al fresco movement reached its peak in 1958, when 4,063 drive-ins blanketed the nation. Today, according to the association's latest figures, there are only 366 open for business. (Pennsylvania has the most, with 33; Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii and Louisiana have none.)
I first went to a drive-in as a toddler. My parents later told me they counted on my falling asleep so they could watch the movie in peace, but I didn't cooperate. I fretted and fussed and made my displeasure clear; they ended up heading home early.
When I was a few years older, I avidly pored over local newspaper ads for the two drive-ins in my central Pennsylvania town. Those theaters tended to play lurid exploitation films, like The Man With the X-Ray Eyes (1963) or Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965). Though I begged and pleaded — the ads promised so much — there was no way my parents were going to hop in the car and allow me to see those movies.
It was only when I reached my mid-teenage years and friends started getting their driver’s licenses that attending drive-ins became an actual possibility. That, of course, is the age when drive-ins often serve a dual purpose, one cultural and the other hormonal. And that's all I'm going to say on that subject. Although I never made it to the dusk-to-dawn movie marathons held on Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and Labor Day, I do remember heading to the drive-in to see Carrie (1976) as well as a Burt Reynolds’ good ol’ boy double bill of Gator (1976) and Smokey and the Bandit (1977). It was the latter flick that put me off drive-ins for good, not because of the quality of the movies — though those Reynolds’ films were wretched — but because of the mosquitoes, swarms of which attacked without mercy all evening.
The national decline of the drive-in came about for equally prosaic reasons. Blame the usual suspects: the rise of television, the invention of VHS and, later, DVDs, video games and giant, flat-screen TVs. Add to that the spread of multiplexes with comfortable, arena seating then IMAX, and moviegoers simply had too many tempting alternatives to the humble drive-in.
Today, going to a drive-in is an exercise in nostalgia. Like gas stations manned by mechanics who still do actual auto repair work, drive-ins represent a fast-disappearing symbol of America. Most are located in smaller towns and cities. In Texas, for example, the state’s three remaining drive-ins are in Lamesa (population 9,500), Lubbock (pop. 230,000) and Midland (pop. 111,000).
I live in New York City (pop. 8,175,000) and the three nearest drive-ins are all more than two hours away (in Hyde Park and Poughkeepsie). But that doesn’t preclude my seeing, should I choose to, movies in the open air almost every night in July and August. Even as drive-ins have vanished, the popularity of screening classic films in public spaces in warm weather has increased exponentially, whether in Central Park or a rural village green in a tiny burg. Families and young couples make a night of it, bringing along picnic baskets, blankets and lawn chairs to watch evergreens like Singin’ in the Rain (1952), Some Like It Hot (1959) and Saturday Night Fever (1977).
Somehow, viewing a movie outdoors on a lovely night, you’re a little less critical. So what if the film isn’t a masterpiece? It's a fun night out. The movie is free and you’ve brought along your own snacks (no rancid, butter-like oil on overpriced popcorn) — hey, isn’t this what summer is all about?
Now, if only someone would show The Man With the X-Ray Eyes.

Leah Rozen
By Leah Rozen
Leah Rozen, a former film critic for People magazine, is a freelance writer for The New York Times, More and Parade.

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