Dennis-FearCurtain

PAST AND FUTURE AT THE DRIVE-IN


 Ten years ago this summer five nerds and some members of their very patient families answered an ad listing on Drive-ins.com and gathered in the snack bar of the Mission Tiki Drive-in Theater in Montclair, California, for the first meeting of what would soon be known as the Southern California Drive-in Movie Society. There wasn’t much of an agenda that first night—we came bearing mostly memories culled from the darkest reaches of our misspent youth, though one member, Kathy Beyers, brought a photo album filled with shots of drive-ins she had visited all around the world which was enthusiastically passed around and pawed over. There wasn’t much more of an agenda than that, though we did get a tour of the booth from projectionist Jeff Thurman, who would become a great friend to our little club. The thing I remember most vividly about that night, other than Kathy’s photo album, was having to leave the actual movie, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, about halfway through because of my oldest daughter (she was five at the time) and her adverse reaction to Willy Wonka’s malevolent squirrels and, I assumed, Johnny Depp’s dentures.

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Only five summers earlier, when my first daughter was only six months old, my wife and I took her along with us to the Asuza Foothill Drive-in in Azusa, California to see Mission: Impossible 2, and before the movie started I took her around the lot for a little tour. I showed her the speaker poles, the snack bar, the projection booth, and we even walked down to the base of the screen tower. My thought was that by the time she was old enough to hop in her pajamas with a few pillows, jump in the back seat and head out to another drive-in, the way I did when I was a small child with my parents, drive-ins would have disappeared altogether. (I had lived in Los Angeles for 13 years by then and had seen several of the drive-ins in the South Bay and San Fernando Valley that I used to attend get torn down in favor of building Walmarts and vast shopping complexes. The Asuza Foothill itself disappeared a couple years after our visit; it is now a parking lot.)

So no one could be more surprised than me to discover that, in the last 10 years or so, drive-ins, in Southern California and other parts of the country, have gone through what amounts to a mini-renaissance. A couple of new ones have cropped up, a couple of old ones have been resurrected, though what’s more significant is that the seemingly inevitable downward crawl toward oblivion for those that have remained seems to have been forestalled as a new generation of parents looking for inexpensive family entertainment, and a flush of older folks nostalgic for the “ozoners” of their youths, have spurred a revived interest in packing up the car and heading out for a show under the stars.

In this July 26, 2013 photo, patrons watch a movie as the sun sets over Bengies Drive-In Theatre in Middle River, Md. The latest threat to the existence of drive-in theaters is the film industry's conversion from 35 mm film to digital prints, and the expense involved in converting projectors to the digital age. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

In this July 26, 2013 photo, patrons watch a movie as the sun sets over Bengies Drive-In Theatre in Middle River, Md. The latest threat to the existence of drive-in theaters is the film industry’s conversion from 35 mm film to digital prints, and the expense involved in converting projectors to the digital age. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

One of the things we used to do, as members of the Southern California Drive-in Movie Society, was park ourselves in the snack bar of one of the four operating drive-ins in Los Angeles and Riverside Counties, about once a month, and talk to the customers as they grabbed their hot dogs and popcorn for the night. Many signed up for our newsletters and announcements promoting upcoming events, and many more stopped by to gab about memories of their favorite drive-ins. The word was getting out that drive-ins hadn’t quite yet died the death that many, in light of increasing property values and encroaching suburban sprawl, had been predicting for years.

One familiar refrain usually went along the lines of, “I used to love to go to the drive-in, but I had no idea there were still any around!” Drive-ins in the first decade of the 21st century had been embraced by a different audience, mostly by families looking for a way to spend time together that wouldn’t break the bank on a weekly basis. Our little group took it as a mission, however meager our resources, to get the word out that there were still a couple hundred drive-ins across the country that were no longer dank, scary places with dim projection and crackly speaker-pole sound where you could expect to get mugged on the way to the snack bar. With advances in projection technology and a safer, more family-oriented atmosphere, drive-ins were becoming a destination of choice for many people once again. 

The formation of SoCalDIMS, as it came to be known, coincided with the emergence of a super-bright illumination system called Technalight, with which many of the drive-ins we frequented, as well as many others around the country, were eventually retrofitted. Technalight was the next step in improving the drive-in experience for the throngs who had come to miss them as their popularity diminished in the 1990s, as well as for promoting drive-ins as an inexpensive family-oriented alternative to the multiplex crush.

Speaking as one who grew up with drive-ins (one in particular) that weren’t exactly bastions of technological accomplishment—none of them were back then, really—the step up from really old-school 35mm carbon-arc and platter projection systems to what Technalight has had to offer drive-in fanatics across the country since 2005 really can’t be exaggerated. But in the old pre-Technalight days, brightness and clarity of the image wasn’t always dictated simply by the limitations of the machinery in the projection room. 

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The owner of the drive-in and indoor theater in my hometown was never a very enthusiastic participant in his chosen profession of movie exhibition, but never less so than in the summer months, when the persistence of the sun in the sky meant that he had to start the show around the time he’d really rather be slipping on his smoking jacket and slippers and preparing to retire for the evening.  And on the monthly movie calendars he used to promote the theater’s schedule, he always made sure to note that the “show starts at dusk,” with an approximate start time always printed below the feature information on the calendar. Folks who went to the drive-in regularly knew that those start times were almanac-inspired and quite specific—if the calendar said “Show Starts at 8:45,” by God, that’s when it would start. 

The problem was that those times were never coincidental with the actual darkness required to project film. The earlier the start, the earlier the finish, so those schedules were usually timed not with the night sky but to the approximate moment the sun disappeared over the western horizon, and since the drive-in lot was positioned so that cars were pointed west facing the screen, there was always plenty of residual sunlight warming the sky in precisely the direction of the projector’s throw. As a result, the first 30 minutes or so of every movie I ever saw at the Circle JM Drive-in in Lakeview, Oregon, looked the same, mostly a murky collection of shadowy movement on the screen that gradually gained enough brightness to actually be discernible at about the time a third of the movie was already over. Though not every drive-in I went to as a young man was this silly about determining the right time to start a movie, most were lacking the substantive clarity that would make them a viable alternative for someone who really wanted to “see” the movie, which was why Technalight registered as such a stark improvement.

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With the dangling carrot of brighter projection as a calling card, we friendly fanatics of SoCalDIMS (as it had come to be known among those of us too lazy to say all the words) were always looking for ways to spread the word about the new age of drive-ins. Early on, one of our most enterprising founding members, Sal Gomez, managed to contact Huell Howser, the folksy, universally loved TV host and self-appointed ambassador of all things good and interesting in the state of California. Howser hosted a program called  California Gold which showcased communities, businesspeople, events, vacation spots, oddities and the natural beauty of the state in half-hour segments that seemed to be able to charm even the most cynical hipster and crusty know-it-all. Sal had piqued Howser’s interest in the resurgence of the Southern California drive-in, and Howser agreed to film a show at what amounted to our unofficial SoCalDIMS headquarters, the newly remodeled and revitalized Mission Tiki Drive-in.

I can personally attest, to those familiar with the late Howser’s down-to-earth charm, that his gregarious manner was no put-on for the cameras. Howser remained gracious, enthusiastic and all-in for the celebration for the entire evening, waxing nostalgic with the theater management, pounding down chili dogs in the snack bar with the customers (who could barely contain their excitement when they realized who he was), poking around the projection booth, even getting himself and his cameraman lost among the multiple entries to the drive-in’s four different screens upon entry to the lot. The cherry on top, for Sal and myself, was being interviewed by Howser right there on the asphalt lot of screen #3. We were now official Howser-anointed representatives of a mission to make sure people knew these terrific drive-ins still existed. (Howser’s California Gold episode on drive-ins is no longer available for streaming from the series’ Web site, though it is available for purchase. Howser himself passed away in 2013.)

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Part of the fun of being involved in the Southern California Drive-in Movie Society was the tailgaters we would organize around certain movie events. We organized road trips to outlying sites, like the Starlite Drive-in in Barstow, California; we helped marshal car clubs to the site for the premiere of Cars in 2006; and we were constantly organizing less formal get-togethers with club members, family members and co-workers for various movies over the course of the past 10 years, like this one revolving around the release of another Pixar film, 2007’s Ratatouille. But it wasn’t always just a family affair. One of the most memorable events I was ever a part of at the drive-in was one I organized in conjunction with my blog, Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule. On this occasion I sent out a general invitation and coordinated the appearance of a very special car club—comprised of hearse owners—for the opening weekend of Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell (2009). I don’t know how much it did to raise the profile of my writing, but we most definitely had a lot of fun and we brought out even more people who hadn’t been to a drive-in in years. In addition to all the usual good food and even better-than-usual company, there were prizes and, hey, I even brought a Drag Me to Hell cake! One need not go to these extreme measures in order to have a good time at the drive-in, but every once in a while it surely doesn’t hurt.

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But a change was on the horizon that had to be acknowledged in the name of survival. Fast-forward to 2011, a point in the history of movie exhibition when it became clearer and clearer that studios were moving toward phasing out traditional 35mm distribution in favor of the more freshly  minted DCP, or Digital Cinema Package. And they weren’t making a choice of the matter—plans to halt all 35mm distribution to theaters would, by the end of 2013, be the reality, not just an ominous rumor, and theaters that didn’t adapt, or haven’t been able to afford to convert to digital projection systems have been forced to close their doors for good—there simply are no more films available to rent and thread through their seriously obsolete 35mm film projectors.

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That dire prognosis was one faced by drive-ins too– for some of them the bottom line was just too hard, and they have had to shut down. But for those that were able to survive and make the switch, being forced kicking and screaming into the digital realm may turn out to be a huge blessing in disguise. All-night 35mm monster movie bliss-outs like the ones held at the Riverside Drive-in in North Vandergrift, Pennsylvania, do seem to be currently threatened (though it’s hard to imagine studios not making car-club faves like Grease  and American Graffiti readily available). However, most 21st-century drive-ins are family-friendly outlets which thrive not on the schlocky B-movies closely associated with the teen-fueled ozoner phenomenon of the 1950s and 1960s, but instead on mainstream fare that can be expected to fill up the giant lots even on weeknights. And if the my recent visits to the Mission Tiki Drive-in are any indication, digital projection might turn out to be an even better thing to happen to drive-ins and the brightness of their future than Technalight was, maybe even better than the “refreshment center” countdown to show time. 

It seems to me that it’s always a good idea to resist the initial hype on quality of improvements and innovation until one can see the end result with one’s own eyes. So two summers ago I eagerly gathered up my family and we headed out to the Mission Tiki to check out the newly installed DCP, which the theater had been promoting and trumpeting on its Web site since well before its premiere the previous weekend. When my family and I go to the drive-in, we usually like to park in the front row, the better to back our van up toward the screen, pop the hatchback and create a pillow-and-blanket-lined viewing environment  for the kids that spills out the back, where camp chairs, tables, coolers can take over for a real drive-in tailgating feel. It makes for a great atmosphere, but from a vantage point so close to the screen even a Technalight-powered image ran the risk of looking fuzzy at times, especially if the projectionist wasn’t particularly good at monitoring the focus. All the way in through the gate and up until show time, I had trouble getting my head to believe, given the huge distance from the projection booth to the #3 screen where we would be parked, that digital projection at a drive-in could be that noticeable an upgrade.

How nice it is, sometimes, to be wrong.

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At 8:30 p.m., under cover of plenty of night, the first image, a logo for the company that created and installed the digital cinema package in use at the Mission Tiki, snapped onto the screen. From that logo, to the brilliant green cards announcing the latest trailers, to the commencement of the movie itself, there could be little doubt that digital projection and drive-ins might well be a match made in Hollywood heaven. As hard as it is to believe, and I wouldn’t have believed such a claim before seeing it myself, the digital image of Fast & Furious 6 and Iron Man 3 (a great double feature by the way, and a hell of a bargain at a total admission of $22 for the four of us—thanks, Mission Tiki!) was every bit as crisp, clean and clear as ones I’ve seen projected at indoor multiplexes all across Southern California. 

As for the audio, we depended on our car stereo, all sound directed to the rear speakers, and additional boom box augmentation from the front. And as is usually the case, we were able to benefit from the sound booming out from other cars parked nearby which were similarly set up for outdoor seating. It wasn’t exactly Dolby Atmos 7.1, but it sure beat the crackly pot-metal speaker boxes mostly closely associated with the bygone days of drive-in movie popularity.

But even with concessions to the varying quality of sound dictated by the FM stereo system and playback system you have available on any given night, I had to admit that with the advent of digital projection, and at the markedly less expensive admission prices, the drive-in suddenly looks like it could develop into a place where a customer might possibly appreciate the way a movie looks as much as indulging in a cool breeze while watching it. The comparatively stress-free fun of kicking back for a movie under the stars has always been a happy alternative to chugging through the multiplex maze, but up till now probably only the most ardent drive-in enthusiast would opt out of the high-tech indoor screen environment for big summer blockbusters. However, and quite improbably, the marvel of digital projection at the drive-in is that as far as the image is concerned DCPs seem to have brought the technological experience of seeing an outdoor movie to within shouting distance of a slick multiplex screening for the first time since Richard Hollingshead kicked off drive-in movie history in 1933– and at approximately half the price of an outing to your nearest big theater chain. 

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I have lived my life as a drive-in movie fan fully cognizant of the format’s inherent technical inferiority to indoor theaters, all the while loving and embracing drive-ins for the uniqueness of what they had to offer. At the same time, many of my friends consistently turned their noses up at the experience—for them the trade-off of pristine control versus the relative wildness of a night at the drive-in amounted to too much of a loss. I can’t imagine that veteran drive-in lovers will find much to complain about in regard to what DCPs seem to have added to the appeal of this 75-year-old American institution. But now maybe even those who have so far resisted the siren call of Hollingshead’s car culture-inspired asphalt movie palaces will finally be seduced. 

And it’s that time again. Two weeks ago my family and 20 or 30 friends kicked off the 2015 summer drive-in movie season in style with a big tailgater in celebration of the release of Mad Max: Fury Road; the movie and the experience was a spectacular as it could be. (In Southern California drive-in season is year-round; you haven’t lived until you’ve done a horror movie double feature sitting outside under cover of multiple blankies with the temps hovering just above freezing… but that’s another story for another time.) Drive-ins began with the isolation of individual automobiles and, after looking all but extinct only a decade ago, have survived long enough to evolve sociologically into an expansive, movie-centric outdoor party atmosphere. And they’ve evolved technologically too. It may just be that now the American drive-in can and will continue on into a future so bright it could only be digital.

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Just for fun, here are 11 movies (in alphabetical order) that have memorable scenes which take place at the drive-in.

Blue Thunder (1983) One key sequence in this thriller about a high-tech urban surveillance helicopter is staged (during the daylight hours) at the Pickwick Drive-in in Burbank, California, which was razed in 1990. The Pickwick, due to its proximity to the local movie studios, hosted many movie premieres, most famously that of Blazing Saddles in 1974, for which everyone in attendance was on horseback.

Brokeback Mountain (2005) In one scene after his return from Brokeback Mountain, Ennis (Heath Ledger) takes his wife Alma (Michelle Williams) on a date to a drive-in movie theater, which is lovingly (if briefly) recreated in the film.

Cars (2006) During the end credits, the cars are shown at the drive-in cinema enjoying parodies of earlier Pixar productions recast with cars in the main roles: Toy Car Story, Monster Trucks, Inc. and A (VW) Bug’s Life.

Dead-end Drive-in (1986) A post-Mad Max Australian thriller in which a young man takes his girlfriend to a date at a drive-in movie only to discover it’s been converted into a prison camp for murderous gangs.

Drive-in (1976) Rod Amateau’s American Graffiti-inspired comedy isn’t so much a good movie as it is a delightful bit of pop culture anthropology, a perfect time capsule look at what going to a small-town drive-in was really like. Here’s my review.

Explorers (1985) My all-time favorite drive-in movie-within-a-movie takes place in this sharp Joe Dante picture. Our young heroes, flying around their town in a makeshift spaceship crafted from an old Tilt-a-Whirl car, buzz the local drive-in on a Saturday night. The recreation of the drive-in movie ambience is brilliant, and we’re treated to a hilarious dubbed-English Star Crash-type sci-fi parody playing on the screen as the homemade spacecraft wreaks havoc on the tower and in the snack bar.

Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the American Drive-in (2013) April Wright’s documentary account of American drive-in history is snappy, informative and lots of fun, and all this despite the fact that I’m in it.

Grease (1978) One musical sequence features T-Bird Danny Zuko (John Travolta) stranded at the drive-in after getting a mite too fresh with Sandy (Olivia Newton-John). He sings a heartfelt ballad to her while cheery hot dogs and refreshment cups dance and prance on the giant screen behind him.

Hollywood Boulevard (1976) Candice Rialson’s agent, Dick Miller, and her screenwriter boyfriend (Jeffrey Kramer) get liquored up for the drive-in premiere of her first low-budget movie, with very mixed results, in this first-rate drive-in sequence directed by Joe Dante and Allan Arkush.

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1986) The long-gone Studio Drive-in in Culver City, California plays host to the world premiere of the only slightly altered big-screen version of Pee-wee’s adventures on his beloved bike in this hilarious sequence from Tim Burton’s classic comedy.

Targets (1968) Peter Bogdanovich’s first movie, a disturbing thriller based on the Texas Tower sniper Charles Whitman, features Boris Karloff as an aging horror star preparing to make an appearance at a drive-in movie theater where the Whitmanesque assassin will soon begin picking off innocent targets.

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For further reading:

My primer on the history of the American drive-in.

A look at some of the drive-ins that didn’t survive, most particularly the one from my hometown.

Some great drive-in movie ads.

A detailed look (with pictures!) at that Drag Me to Hell drive-in party.