Skip to comments.America embraces drive-in nostalgia
Posted on 06/15/2003 3:57:39 PM PDT by Pokey78
UNDER a starry Alabama sky, surrounded by cotton fields, maple trees and the chatter of cicadas, the pick-ups and Chevrolets glow and flicker, lit by the colossal white screen.
Inside the cars parents and children settle in their seats, munching hot dogs. Love-struck teenagers snuggle up; the air fills with the glow of fireflies and smell of buttered popcorn. The lights of the tiny town of Centre, a mile away, are too dim to penetrate this enchanted scene. The movie begins. It could be 1953.
This was Saturday night, however, and across America, from this beautifully restored drive-in cinema in northeastern Alabama to Colorados Rocky Mountains and the valleys of California, the same nostalgic scene was being played out in hundreds of locations. Despite the countrys enslavement to the internet, the video game and mobile phone, or perhaps because of it, baby-boomers are rediscovering their love of the drive-in movie while a new generation is being captivated.
In 1957, when the Everly Brothers sang Wake Up Little Suzy, about a teenage couple who fall asleep at the drive-in, there were about 5,000 outdoor cinemas in America. By the early 1980s, overgrown and rusting, thousands had shut. As the home video revolution took hold, hundreds made way for shopping centres and car parks. Some estimate that the number of drive-in cinemas had dropped to fewer than 200 by 1985.
Now they are rising into the night sky again. Since 1995, 22 have been built and many more restored.
Jennifer Sherer, of Drive-on-in, Inc, says that there are now nearly 450 outdoor screens in the US. New drive-ins are to be built in Texas, Kentucky, Alabama, California, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Ohio and several other states next year.
What is significant is that we are seeing new drive-ins being built from scratch, not just the restoration of old ones, Ms Sherer said.
I think our lives have got more and more hectic, and drive-ins represent a simpler time for a lot of people. The baby-boomers have a lot of childhood memories with drive-ins, and there is something timeless that is appealing to people of all ages.
And it is a place where families can spend time together, and those places have become few and far between.
At Centres 411 Drive-In, Emory Johnson is still captivated by the magic of the outdoor screen. After flying 63 escort missions for US bombers across Europe during the Second World War, he left the Air Force and built the drive-in in 1953, just off Highway 411 then just a two-lane road in a gently undulating field that was once an apple orchard. Admission was 50 cents.
There is something exhilarating as you first glimpse the screen amid the cornfields. Bolted on to the original oak posts and slatted wooden frames, it rises into the sky in the shadow of the Appalachians Lookout Mountain, like an ancient Trojan horse.
It closed in 1983 and remained untouched for nearly 20 years. In July 2001, however, with the help of his sons, Rex and Carl, Mr Johnson restored the snack bar, repaired the 40ft by 65ft screen by replacing the original asbestos with white-painted tin, and reopened.
The 250-car site was filled nearly every night.
Mr Johnson, 80, helped by his wife Sara, grills his home-made burgers. She wraps the hot dogs. Rex and Carl take turns at the ticket booth and projection room.
People come from as far afield as Atlanta, 100 miles away, and Chattanooga in Tennessee. Alcohol is banned; there is never any trouble.
This last weekend we had to turn em away. We had em lined up down the road, Mr Johnson said. It was much more popular than I thought it would be. People can bring their children thats the big draw.
There are some who like to park out back. I dont condone what they do, but most 14 and 15-year-olds just like to sit outside on blankets and talk and socialise.
Recently, Mr Emory said, a couple arrived and told me they had their first date here in 1957.
Inside a Dodge pick-up, about to watch 2Fast2Furious, a new release about car races, sit Tony Phillips, his daughter Sumer, 15, and her boyfriend Randy Hutchens, 12.
Im out on the date with them, Mr Phillips said. I guess we had forgotten about drive-ins. But theyre coming back, for sure. People around here love this one.
Parked 600ft from the screen, in the shadow of a wood, sit Charles Conkle, 17, and his girlfriend Jessie Nail, 16. I like being further away, Charles said. We come here all the time.
Then the moon rose, and the soundtrack crackled to life on the car radio. Wouldnt you rather watch a movie here than inside a theatre jammed up against a whole lotta people? Mr Johnson asked.
It was hard to disagree.
The fluctuating fortunes of a US institution
More money using them as flea markets. Plus the drive-in movie sound is crappy compared to what you get in theaters. I really don't see much of a drive-in revival.
...in 1956, maybe. Now any rinky-dink drive-in can use a $99 500mW FM stereo transmitter that you tune into from each car, much like the aftermarket add-on CD changers and such that use FM modulators. You can even use your own Walkman in your lawn chair.
When I was a kid my folks would load us all in the station wagon (five kids) with a cooler and blankets. Sometimes Mom would dress us in our pajamas.
We would go see a double feature and fall asleep before the second one was done. Near the Fourth of July there were also fireworks, no additional charge.
Sometimes (when we weren't in pajamas) we could go to the playground before the show started and play on the equipment. One drive-in in Indianapolis, the Pendleton Pike Drive-In, even had a small roller coaster and merry-go-round.
Wonderful times, and I am glad to see they are undergoing a revival. My son with three children would probably go to one if it were close to our house. I would go too, because you can SMOKE in your car while you watch a movie.
For all you Central Floridians out there, I recommend it highly!
We used to "exchange holidays" with a couple in the UK.
Until about a decade ago there was both a drive-in theatre and a 50's car-hop hambuger joint near us. So we took out friends on a "Typical date for us way back when".
The fellow worked for Barclay's, and was fascinated as to why the drive-ins were disappearing. He offered the suggestions that perhaps real estate prices, etc..etc.etc.
I put a stop to the theorizing:
"The Invention of Panty Hose."
Same here. I have very fond memories of going to the drive-in with my parents in the station wagon. I'd be in my pajamas in the back and would try to stay up and watch the movies as long as I could. But I never made it to the end. I'd always fall asleep and be rattled in and out of a slumber as the car was on the way back home. Sometimes my parents would just leave me in the car for the night so as not to disturb me. Different times back then. No parent would leave their child in a car overnight these days (or unbuckled for that matter).
I wonder where this drive-in is in northeast Alabama. I'll be down there in a few more days with my youngest son. Maybe we'll check it out.
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