Drive-in summer

Why I fell in love with shooting stars, vans a-rockin' and watching a big screen from the back seat.

Published November 1, 2000 4:00PM (EST)

My parents tell me that I saw my first movie at a drive-in. But the only clear memories I had of the outdoor theaters that Variety used to call "ozoners" were of the Tropicaire Drive-In in Miami, where we used to go to the flea market on Saturdays, and of John Travolta singing sullenly in front of a drive-in screen in "Grease."

It wasn't until late in the summer of 1999, when I was living in Boston, that I first went to a drive-in behind the wheel of my own car. I'd known for some time that the Wellfleet Drive-In was the last remaining drive-in on Cape Cod, the meandering, sandy arm of land off the southeast corner of Massachusetts. Every year, the Wellfleet Drive-In is the subject of at least one big "last of a vanishing breed" stories in a Boston newspaper or magazine. I was spending a long weekend in the fishing village of Wellfleet with my girlfriend, Amy, and another couple. We watched Steve Martin's "Bowfinger" and the superhero parody "Mystery Men," four of us piled into the flattened cargo area of my Jeep Cherokee, which we'd parked backward, with the gate open.

I was enthralled. At the drive-in, you could look for shooting stars when the movie bogged down, take a walk and try to spot some vans a-rockin' or wing pieces of saltwater taffy -- as we did that night -- at the cars whose passengers absent-mindedly turned on the lights or tapped the brakes during the show. It was half the price of seeing an indoor movie. And the screen was 100 feet wide!

Two movies that would have felt like ponderous time wasters at a multiplex seemed light and whimsical at the drive-in. Hollywood lately seems much better at meeting lowered expectations; if it insists on flooding theaters with B-movies, why shouldn't we see them at the drive-in, the ancestral home of the B-movie?

As this summer's drive-in season in New England approached, I decided it would be a fun project to try to see more movies in my car than I saw at the multiplex. Later, I came up with a secondary mission: to visit all of the surviving drive-ins in Massachusetts.

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Convenience isn't a reason you fall in love with the drive-in. None of them is within an easy drive of Boston or many other big cities. Unless you're severely lost, you're not likely to stumble across one. And if you do, odds are that it's abandoned -- there are only about 520 drive-ins left in the country, down from a high of 4,063 in 1958. The ones that have survived are huddled in the woods outside smaller towns like Lunenberg, Mass., or Amelia, Ohio, where real estate prices haven't shot up too far or too fast.

But there are plenty of aesthetic and practical reasons that spurred my transformation from a denizen of the mall multiplex to a devotee of the drive-in, and nostalgia had nothing to do with it:

  • The drive-in is the perfect compromise between watching a video in the privacy of your living room, where you can make all the snide comments you want, and watching it on the big screen at an indoor theater, where you can't avoid overhearing all of your neighbors' snide comments.

  • I like not having to rush to eat dinner in order to get to the 9 o'clock movie at the multiplex, or hurry to get to the 7 o'clock showing and then forage for dinner afterward. No one cares if you bring food to the drive-in; some places even allow you to bring a grill and cook your meal on the premises. (Try that at the local AMC 24.)

  • At most drive-ins today, you listen to the sound over your car's FM radio, not a battered metal speaker hooked to the door, so the volume is never too loud or too soft. And if you don't want to sit in the car, you can bring a lawn chair; there's usually a dedicated group of lawn-chair sitters lined up right in front of the screen.

  • You can bring young children and no one will shush them or shoot you dirty looks. You can even bring a dog. You can smoke, drink, make out and basically behave like the juvenile delinquent you never were. You can watch the sky try on different shades of blue in the last half-hour before it's dark enough to show the movie.

  • There's also the possibility for interplay between the environment and the screen. I was surrounded by looming pines when I watched the opening battle scene of Gladiator," set in a forest. I saw "The Perfect Storm" just outside Wellfleet, salt air permeating the car.

    Of course, there are drawbacks. It's not exactly convenient to drive 45 minutes or an hour each way to go to the movies, even if it is a double or triple feature. Projection quality can be iffy, and screens that aren't well maintained can get splotched and grungy -- though all of the drive-ins I've visited have been no worse than the less-than-pristine viewing experience you get at a chain-run indoor theater, and most have been better. The biggest inconveniences are the occasional interruption of a horn honking, a mosquito buzzing around or a pair of headlights arriving or departing the lot midmovie.

    But for me, watching that animated frankfurter reluctantly jump into the bun during intermission more than makes up for any drawbacks.

    Drive-ins in New England, and most other places with frigid winters, are open seasonally -- usually May to September. This spring, I counted the days until May 19, the night that the Mendon Drive-In, the ozoner closest to Boston, was to open. But the first weekend was cold and drizzly, so Amy and I didn't wind up making the 45-minute trek to Mendon until the next weekend.

    Mendon is a two-screen drive-in that has been open since 1954. The second screen was added more recently, in 1998. Both fields are grass and dirt, which I appreciate. Many drive-ins are paved for easier upkeep -- and so that the fields can host swap meets during the day -- but the unpaved ones are more pleasant, more bucolic. Mendon has a self-consciously retro snack bar that features a jukebox and an old carbon-arc projector. Most drive-ins now use the same kind of xenon-bulb projectors you find at an indoor theater, only the bulbs are much more powerful because they have to "throw" the picture longer distances and compete with ambient light -- 5,000 to 7,000 watts, compared with 3,000 for a bulb used indoors.

    We watched "Gladiator" with the sound turned up real loud on the stereo. The epic looked wonderful on Mendon's big screen. "Gladiator" was followed by the sporadically funny but forgettable Tom Green movie "Road Trip."

    Two weekends later, we were back at Mendon with Meghan, a friend who had never been to a drive-in before. I was discovering that lots of people in their 20s and 30s aren't aware that drive-ins still exist. The double feature that night was "Dinosaur" and "Gone in 60 Seconds," and we watched a little bit of "Gladiator" on the other screen before we left. Two weeks later, we drove to Mendon again to celebrate my birthday with a bunch of friends.

    There were five cars altogether, parked in a cluster. We ate fruit and cheese and crackers and drank lemon soda, had some birthday cake and watched the just-released animated movie "Chicken Run." Most of the group dissolved after the intermission ended. Some stayed for part of Woody Allen's "Small Time Crooks," but Amy and I had both seen that -- it's one of the two movies I saw indoors this summer -- so we started the trip home early.

    The week of the July 4 holiday, we were back at the Wellfleet Drive-In, watching "The Perfect Storm" and part of "My Dog Skip." Yes, director Wolfgang Petersen made a movie that tossed all the strengths of Sebastian Junger's book overboard, but what he wound up with was gripping and melodramatic enough to be an ideal drive-in flick.

    It was at about this point in the summer that I decided to try to visit all of the remaining drive-ins in Massachusetts. In 1958, at the apogee of the drive-in, there had been 86 in the state. Now there were either six or seven -- seven if you count the Northfield Drive-In, which I didn't. It was on the border of New Hampshire and Massachusetts, but mostly in New Hampshire. The area code was 603, an out-of-state call. The other six ozoners were clustered in the eastern and middle part of the state, all within an hour-and-45-minute drive from Boston.

    In the sprawling middle of the summer, you can take your time getting to a drive-in, since darkness comes so late. We'd stop to eat dinner on the way out, or pick up burgers or Thai food, and there was still time to arrange the back of the Jeep, go for a walk and watch the moon rise. The Edgemere Drive-In was huge -- the biggest in the state, with room for 1,000 cars -- and sparsely populated, which made it seem a little eerie. There, we tried to time our arrival to avoid the first film, "M:i-2," but failed, and caught the second half of that and all of "Scary Movie." The Leicester Drive-In was filled with families, and the atmosphere was like a block party. We could hear laughter from the other cars as Janet Jackson tried to pull off line after line of clunky genetics terminology in "Nutty Professor II."

    In mid-August, we orienteered our way to the Tri-Town Drive-In near Lunenberg (showing "X-Men," a fantasy that plays perfectly at a drive-in, followed by the abominable "Hollow Man"). Roger, the courtly old gentleman in the white "Members Only" jacket who was manning the ticket booth, wasn't impressed that we'd come from Boston. "Lots of people come to see us from all over," he said. "There aren't too many drive-ins around anymore."

    After the Tri-Town, it was five down, one to go.

    As I was planning my forays around the state, I also did some reading about the history of the drive-in. In brief: A guy named Richard Hollingshead Jr. was inexplicably intrigued by the idea of being able to watch a movie from the comfort of his car. In his New Jersey driveway, he nailed a makeshift screen to some trees, perched a Kodak projector on the hood of his car and hid a radio behind the screen.

    But the patent he obtained in 1933 was for a different invention altogether: the mounds of dirt he designed to raise the front end of a parked car enough so that its occupants could see over the cars parked in front of it. The first drive-in opened in 1933 in Camden, N.J. (Sadly, no drive-ins operate today in the Garden State.) But in 1938, Hollingshead's patent was invalidated by a Boston circuit court, which decided that mounds of dirt weren't patentable. (Tell that to Jeff Bezos!)

    Drive-ins began replicating like pod people after the patent decision, and especially after World War II. Gas became freely available after rationing, cars were big and comfortable and taking the family out for a drive was still an important ritual. Drive-ins got big -- some could hold 3,000 cars, with trains taking patrons to the concession stand. There were drive-ins that welcomed airplanes and drive-ins with hitching posts for moviegoers who arrived on horseback.

    The decline of the drive-in is well chronicled, and can be blamed on any number of factors: a fading of their novelty, smaller cars, a loss of the family businesses that drive-ins relied on, the introduction of the VCR and rising real estate prices, which forced many drive-in owners to sell out.

    But what hasn't been written about much is that the free fall in the number of drive-ins has been arrested. The 1980s were disastrous. But in the 1990s, the trend toward closings reversed, with new drive-ins opening in places like Nebraska, South Carolina and Wisconsin. A flea market operator in Avon, near Buffalo, N.Y., decided to build three movie screens to supplement his business, and Alabama got five new drive-ins. In Virginia, neighbors in Lexington banded together and raised $25,000 to save their local drive-in, open since 1950.

    According to Jennifer Sherer, who runs the Web site and hopes to open a new drive-in of her own near Las Vegas, 17 new drive-ins were built in the 1990s, and 49 existing ones were reopened. Then there are drive-ins, like Mendon, that have added extra screens. After a long hiatus, the industry even has its own trade group again, the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association, and an annual convention in Orlando, Fla.

    "I don't see the drive-in reaching another heyday or golden age," Sherer told me, "but there will always be a small place in the market for these kinds of businesses, the anti-Wal-Marts. There's just this romantic aspect to it, being outside, under the stars, watching a movie under a screen that makes something larger than life. Everyone I've met is drawn to that feeling of people outdoors having this communal experience that you can't re-create in your living room, or in an indoor theater."

    There's something Brigadoon-ish about turning left when you see the battered neon sign: This is a place that shouldn't really exist in the year 2000.

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    I had plans that would take me to Florida for the Labor Day weekend, and I worried that that might be my last opportunity to visit my sixth and final drive-in in Massachusetts, the Mohawk Drive-In in Gardner, about 55 miles northwest of Boston. But the recorded message gave no indication when I called that the Mohawk's season was coming to an end. I thought I was safe.

    When I returned to Boston after Labor Day, the weather had turned crisp. Fall was here, suddenly, and I was caught off balance by summer's end. When I called the Mohawk to see what was playing that weekend, I encountered the message that I'd dreaded: Thanks for a great season, folks. See you next summer.

    I was in a funk for the rest of the week. Yes, I managed to see far more movies outdoors than indoors, but I hadn't been to all of the state's drive-ins, and I doubt I'll try to repeat the whole string next year.

    As a consolation, I settled for one more visit to Mendon. It was showing "Space Cowboys" and "The Cell," the former a solid drive-in picture, the latter a sloppily done "Silence of the Lambs" wannabe that still managed to be pretty spooky, with spectral forms roaming the field on their way to or from the snack bar.

    But a trip to the drive-in in September is different, I discovered. The sun sets earlier, so it's a race to get there by dark, when the first movie starts. There are fewer cars and fewer kids and just a skeleton crew of employees -- the ones who didn't have to return to school. Instead of feeling like a celebration of summer, this trip felt like trying to elude fall.

    I fought the urge for a few more weeks, but eventually I returned reluctantly to the multiplex, where there are no double features or dancing hot dogs, where bad movies are just bad and where there's nothing up above except ceiling tiles.

    See you next summer.

  • By Scott Kirsner

    Scott Kirsner is a Boston writer who covers business and technology for Fast Company, Boston Magazine, Wired, and CIO.

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