Nostalgia 101: Drive-Ins

June 11, 2006
A thought by James Berardinelli

This is the first in an open-ended series looking back at film-related subjects from 20-30 years ago. Keep in mind, of course, that nostalgia is an age-related subject. I can't wax nostaglic about things I wasn't born for, and the 1990s feel too much like current events.

There are still drive-ins in existence. Some of you who are reading this essay have probably attended them. But they are few and far between, especially in my part of the country. And in my home state of New Jersey, where the drive-in was born, there are none. Every once in a while, someone floats a balloon about opening one as a "retro" idea, but it never gets very far. Drive-ins aren't cheap to run. If they were, they would be everywhere.

The drive-in started as a gimmick in the 1930s. A few adventurous souls wondered if patrons would be interested in watching a movie without leaving their cars. They were, and the drive-in came into existence in Camden, NJ. The heyday for these theaters was during the 1950s and 1960s, when teenagers used them as a better alternative to motel rooms. By the 1970s, drive-ins were still viable, but they had converted from attracting new drivers with hormones in overdrive to families in station wagons. The 1980s saw the rapid decline in outdoor theaters. Many converted to softcore porn before going belly-up. The decade saw the death of drive-ins en masse. When I entered high school in 1981, there were three drive-ins within a 10-mile radius of my house. By the time I graduated from college in 1989, there were only three empty, weed-infested lots.

Had I been born in the 1950s, I would be able to provide a long commentary with dozens of memories. I might have lost my virginity at a drive-in. As it is, I wasn't born until 1967, and by the time I attended my first drive-in, teenagers had graduated to groping in mall parking lots. In the 1970s, drive-ins were no longer "cool," either in the conventional or the retro sense.

Between 1975 and 1978, I made my only three trips to drive-ins. After that, I confined my movie-watching to indoor venues. Yet those excursions left an indelible impression on my psyche, especially the third trip, when I wandered around the parking lot looking for evidence of the salicious activities drive-in theaters were known for. I didn't find any. Maybe it was the movie, or maybe the era of drive-in dates was past. Regardless, most of the cars were occupied by families, and the few couples who were there were behaving themselves.

A number of factors combined to all-but-destroy the drive-in industry during the 1980s. The two most obvious were the rise of the multiplex and the arrival of home video. The convenience of the drive-in (never having to leave the car) was trumped by the potential of not having to leave the house. And, for those who still liked going out to see a movie, how could a second-run double-feature beat a state-of-the-art group of auditoriums where between five and eight titles played concurrently? As attendance dropped, most drive-in operators found they could get more money from selling the land than keeping the shows running. A few tried porn, but outraged towns clamped down on that practice, since it allowed horny teenagers to view X-rated fare from their rooftops. Who cared if there was no sound? It was the images that mattered, anyway.

As with many things, I didn't pay much attention to drive-ins when they were around but, now that they're gone, I wish I could spend some time at one (without having to travel several hundred miles) - a wistful yearning that's better left as a fantasy. It's part of the odyssey that every adult embarks upon to recapture his or her childhood. For kids today, drive-ins are every bit a curiosity as black-and-white televisions and LPs.

Many (older) people I have talked to can list an impressive number of drive-in "firsts." Like a rookie baseball player, initial singles, doubles, triples, and home runs were routinely logged while a B movie unspooled on the giant screen. My own drive-in "first" is less impressive than kissing or copping a feel. A drive-in is where I first saw Star Wars. 29 years later, the movie lives on (in one form or another), but the theater does not. A 14-plex has been erected on the premises but, at the back of the parking lot, if you get out of your car and look around, you can locate where the screen once stood. Ten years from now, even those reminders will be lost, reclaimed by nature. By then, will that multiplex be a subject for a Nostalgia 101 feature?