Todd McCarthy: Drive-Ins, And The Memories That Come With Them, Are Back

Drive-In Theater
The Mission Tiki drive-in in Montclair, CA AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

Drive-in movies are back, and it took the deadly COVID-19 virus to resurrect them. With cinemas closed and large public gatherings not a good idea no matter what some bikers, party-types and comb-over presidents might think, some adventurous souls have met with success in recent months by rejuvenating the largely dead-and-buried American pastime of drive-in moviegoing.

Adapting to strictures designed to maintain safety guidelines for social distancing and non-physical contact transactions, a few entrepreneurs and drive-in operators have made a go of it this summer with a variety of programming approaches. It’s an open question whether or not this will trigger a long-term resurrection of an institution that reached its peak in the late 1950s, when more than 4,000 drive-ins dotted the United States map. I should think not, for a variety of reasons.

But for the moment, the newly resurrected drive-ins are providing a good excuse to get out of the house for a few hours and see movies under considerably better conditions than were prevalent for automobile-bound audiences back in the day. Everyone I’ve spoken with about going to drive-ins in the 1950s-’60s almost immediately recalls the dreadful speakers that issued very poor sound under the best of circumstances and image clarity that could never measure up to standards that prevailed in hard-top cinemas. Director Joe Dante told me that, even as a little kid, whenever he was taken to drive-ins by his parents, he always brought along a bottle of Windex to spray on the windshield to make sure he could see the screen as clearly as possible. Still, he recalled, “The sound was very tinny. And if you got out of the car you just got the reverb.”

“I didn’t really like drive-ins because the sound was so bad,” echoed Peter Bogdanovich, whose first film, Targets, is capped by a brilliantly disturbing climax in which a deranged former Army sharpshooter takes aim, through a hole in the drive-in screen, at random viewers sitting in their cars (the sequence was shot at a drive-in in Reseda, which Bogdanovich liked due to its warm blue-and-yellow color scheme). The director recalled that, “When we showed Targets at drive-ins it really was terrifying,” and it can be safely said that this film made the most powerful use of a drive-in as a setting ever put on screen.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
“Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” Courtesy Image

Film critic and historian Jonathan Rosenbaum shared a letter (later published) that his father wrote to his wife about a fiasco of a drive-in outing to see Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in the New York area in the early 1950s with his two sons, some friends and a Black babysitter who they were concerned would not be allowed in due to segregation laws; he couldn’t use his own car because the tinted windows were no good at drive-ins; “tempers flared” over who would get to sit in front, a problem eventually only solved by drawing lots; it started to rain, meaning the engine had to be turned on to run the windshield wipers, which proved unrelievedly distracting; steam filled the car when all the windows were shut, and after a while the dirt turned to mud, causing the car to start slipping backwards. The dad wrote that, “Visibility is so bad that I can amuse myself (somewhat ironically) by trying to distinguished Marilyn Monroe from Jane Russell.”

Nearly everyone who lived through the so-called glory days of drive-ins has stories to tell that are more amusing to think or hear about than they were to experience. Rosenbaum remembers that, “The first time I ever saw Peeping Tom was at a local drive-in with my brother Alvin, and it was so hot that we watch most of it from the car’s front hood.”

My old friend and longtime colleague David Stratton, a lifelong hard-core cinephile, had dismaying luck with drive-ins. There was no such thing in the UK when he was growing up in England during the 1940s and ’50s. So on the day he sailed into Sydney Harbor from Britain to immigrate, July 29, 1963, “I persuaded a Sydney friend to take me to the Skyline Drive-In in the suburb of North Ryde to see a Peter Sellers comedy, Waltz of the Toreadors (which I’d already seen in the UK), plus The Sinister Man, a potboiler directed by Clive Donner. My main memory of the evening is dashing to get some food in the interval and forgetting there were speaker lead between the cars and the speaking posts. I crashed into one and fell heavily. A great start to my cinema-going Down Under.”

Nine years later when he was passing through L.A., David was drawn by the prospect of a great double-bill, Dirty Harry and The Wild Bunch. But he was foiled again. “The image on the screen was so dim that it was difficult to see what was happening. I made a complaint, which fell on deaf ears, so my date and I left.”

Steven Soderbergh told me of two traumatic drive-in experiences that have stuck with him. “The first movie I ever saw was at a Pittsburgh drive-in in 1968. The movie was Planet of the Apes, and the only clear memory I have is my father covering my eyes just before we see the dead/decomposed astronaut in the cracked hibernation pod after they land. My other strong drive-in memory was seeing The Wanderers in 1979 (alone) and afterward getting lost for hours on some Louisiana backroads, screaming at the windshield as my car was running out of gas (apparently I did make it home).”

Brad Bird
Bird David James

But one eminent filmmaker I spoke with holds thoroughly idyllic memories of drive-ins as a cherished getaway spot during both childhood and his teenage years. Brad Bird grew up in Corvallis, OR, midway between two different drive-ins, and his earliest moviegoing experiences were classic Americana. “My parents had a station-wagon and my mom would fill a grocery bag full of popcorn and put sleeping bags on the roof for the kids, while my parents would stay in the car. We’d lie there under the stars and it was just great.”

Given his later success with such animated instant classics as The Incredibles and Ratatouille, it’s perhaps revealing that Bird can’t specifically remember any of the feature films he saw from the car roof but vividly recalls being knocked out by the 1950s Casper the Friendly Ghost animated shorts, and only a bit less so by the “funky” ads unique to drive-ins.

A few years later, when he was about 10, “It helped to have an older sister” who would take him to drive-in showings of violent films like Bonnie and Clyde and, a bit later, kung fu movies. When Bird himself hit driving age and started dating, they still weren’t checking IDs for R-rated titles, “So it was a chance to pay marginal attention to the movies. All the memories I have of drive-ins are good.”

Still, my favorite drive-in story belongs to Roger Corman, whose career beginnings in the 1950s with monster, sci-fi and teen exploitation pictures are intimately tied to the heyday of the drive-in. In the 1970s, when I moved to Los Angeles and worked for him, Roger was cranking out his usual bill-of-fare with one hand while distributing tony, major auteur foreign-language art films with the other. One day he said that his proudest achievement at New World Pictures was convincing exhibitors to book the English-dubbed version of Ingmar Bergman’s deadly serious Cries and Whispers into drive-ins.

It must be said that drive-ins, for all their 1950s-vintage cool cachet as places to hang out, make out, swig some illicit brew or partake of potentially illegal substances, have always had their limitations. Early on there were attempts at outdoor film showings, none of which clicked with the public. As early as April 1915, the Theatre de Guadalupe opened in Las Cruses, NM, where 40 cars were permitted to join several hundred seated customers to watch films. Six years later, officials in Comanche, Texas, allowed patrons to watch films in closely parked cars downtown next to seated customers. Neither gimmick caught on.

Drive-ins as we know them were invented, or at least patented, many years later by a young auto products sales manager in Camden, NJ, named Richard Hollingshead, who was reportedly motivated by his mother’s discomfort in everyday movie theaters. His early, pre-sound experiments were rudimentary, consisting mainly of projecting the image on a large screen tied to trees.

But on June 6, 1933, he opened what he called the Park-In Theater in Camden. The facility boasted 400 “slots” for cars and a 40×50-foot screen, and the cost was reasonable: 25 cents per car plus 25 cents per person, with a limit of a dollar. The sales pitch: “The whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are!”

The kids no doubt became very noisy indeed, as the opening attraction was a poorly reviewed 61-minute marital mix-up comedy called Wives Beware, starring the urbane Lothario-type Adolph Menjou. The novelty of the enterprise sustained it for a while, but Hollingshead’s venture went bust after three years.

The earliest drive-ins, such as the Park-In, used speakers on a tower, which resulted in a slight sound delay compared to the picture. This problem was overcome with the opening, in 1934, of the Pico Drive-In Theater, the first such facility in Los Angeles, at Pico and Westwood. By 1941, there were 15 drive-ins in the L.A. area.

Drive-In Theater
The Starlite 14 in Richland Center, WI

At their peak in the late 1950s, there were somewhere between 4,000-5,000 drive-ins operating in the U.S.; today there are just 330. At the time the virus hit in March, there was, as far as I can ascertain, just one drive-in, the Mission Tiki, in Montclair, operating in the Los Angeles area. However, with all hard-top theaters shuttered through the spring and into the summer by the pandemic, a number of enterprising pop-ups brought something other than housebound moviegoing back to life, up to a point.

Several old drive-ins have re-invented themselves for this unfortunate occasion, with safe-spacing recommendations (usually nine or 10 feet) in mind and other precautions (such as staying in your car) varying a bit from venue to venue. Among them: the Paramount, which limits vehicles to half-capacity; the Van Burn in Riverside, where you can only leave your car to go to the bathroom, with mask on; the Vineland in Sun Valley, which spaces cars especially widely; The Rubidoux in Riverside, which offers to-go concessions, the West Wind in Santa Barbara; and the Roadium in South Bay.

There are also numerous pop-up film programs aimed at assorted constituencies at different venues, some, such as one at the Westfield Fashion Mall in Sherman Oaks, that have been operating during previous summers, and others, such as Outfest L.A.’s Drive-In screenings, focusing on LGBTQ-geared programs, in Malibu.

Looking particularly promising due to its sharp-minded and varied programming is “Late Night Drive-In at the Andaz,” which opened auspiciously over the weekend with a program called “We Love You Julie Christie” featuring a double bill of Darling and Doctor Zhivago. Future programs, seemingly apt considering the location on the safely spaced Sunset Strip venue on the hotel’s roof, include Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip, Wild in the Streets, Truck Turner, Breathless (the 1983 U.S. version with Richard Gere) and one of the greatest of L.A. movies, Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye.

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