Not so much a favorite road as a favorite destination, drive-in movies recall memories of family fun and fun that ended up creating families.
Peaking in the late 1950s with over 4,000 theaters across America, drive-in movies continued in their heyday until the late 1960s. From there drive-ins experienced a precipitous decline that by 2020 left but 321 drive-ins nationwide…and then came Covid-19.
Drive-in movies- back to the future
Popping up like mushrooms born in the dark of a world suddenly deprived of multiplexes, drive-in movies are staging a breathtaking revival. Social distancing, cabin fever, binging on bad TV, the sun finally came out in New Jersey, all this coalesced in a perfect storm of desperation and desire to get the hell out of the house.
Emerging from the mist of a life long gone by, the drive-in movie has come to the rescue. Local town pool parking lots, farm stands, malls, any place with a flat surface that can fit at least 75 cars seems to have a portable screen and people are loving it.
Mention portable movie screens and I immediately betray my age by recalling those tripod based shaky jobs necessary when the health teacher broke out the Bell and Howell projector.
Instead, in my town of Park Ridge, NJ, a Macy’s Day parade balloon-size monolith with a 40 ft. by 30ft. screen swelled up in 15 minutes. As twilight advanced, cars filled the town pool parking lot taking positions eight feet apart with the precision of a marching band preparing for halftime. Movie audio played out through patrons’ premium Harmon Kardon, Bowers & Wilkins, and Bang & Olufsen Audio systems. Event producer Monte Entertainment provided everything except food. Rather than the dancing hot dog snack bar, movie goers ordered food from a local restaurant that delivered.
Choosing to screen “The Goonies”, Park Ridge Recreation Director Liz Falkenstern skillfully employed the three “Fs” of successful town events, family, fun and fresh air. No submarine races to watch here.
In surveying the arrayed cars and audience, a slight twinge of personal nostalgia bubbled up but slowly eroded as my mental check boxes denoting favorite memories remained unmarked. Cars not only lacked the character lines of rolling stock from the drive-in heydays, but most now faced the wrong way. Over half of the vehicles where SUVs facing away from the screen with rear hatches raised. In the 60’s my VW microbus, alone, stared defiantly in the opposite direction allowing for my uplifted hatch to afford fresh air and a fully reclined viewing position on the mattress in back.
As to be expected and for the organizers to be commended, this one-off drive-in experience projected a sanitized joyously family friendly, 4th of July parade-like, Hallmark moment. Well done.
However, my recollections, like woulda, coulda, shoulda memories defied resurrection. Today’s sanitize pop-up drive-in experience lacks the yesteryear tackiness of the neon rimmed refreshment stand, crunchy gravel sound as you positioned your vehicle on the viewing berm, car mounted speakers, 60-second dancing hot dog snack bar promo films, the chorus line of salty, sweet, greasy and crunchy treats arrayed across the screen under the “It’s intermission time” banner and of course mastery of the discrete wandering eye as, with cardboard snack tray of goodies clutched in both hands, you weaved your way back through the aisles of mid-century Detroit iron with no air conditioning and fogged windows.
By 2020 the dancing hot dog snack bar promos, car mounted speakers and double feature submarine race watching has disappeared into the mist of times gone by as the ranks of full-time drive-in theaters across the nation have withered to a paltry 321.
However, among that paltry rank exist drive-ins exhibiting a creative bold conviction that fortifies them in the face of extinction. I have two personal favorites. One is the Spud Drive-in in Driggs, Idaho, population 1,600.
Photographed by travelers from around the globe, “Old Murphy” a 1946 Chevy cab-over truck proudly displays a 15-foot long 2-ton potato on its flatbed. Welcome to the Spud Drive-in.
Opened in 1953, the Spud with a capacity of 100 cars may be the smallest remaining drive-in theater in America. With the Grand Teton Mountains in the distance and surrounded by some of the best trout fishing in the world, the Spud features a single screen and a ‘50s themed down home snack bar as colorfully unique as “Old Murphy.” Window speakers remain available for those wishing to enjoy the movie in a time capsule.
A good days drive south will get you to Escalante, Utah and the Shooting Star Drive-In. Uniquely situated along a green stretch of the breathtakingly beautiful and drivable Utah State Route 12, the Shooting Star offers a drive-in experience like no other. Surrounded by views of The Grand Staircase, Escalante Mountains and Dixie National Forest, the Shooting Star features Airstream trailers with Hollywood star dressing room themes for overnight accommodations and 1960’s era convertibles positioned before a drive-in movie screen that features vintage cartoons and films produced between 1946 and 1969.
Best movie for pop-up drive-in night? Has to be “Back to the future.”
Funny thing is there are two drive-ins just across the river from my hometown, one in Hyde Park and the other in Poughkeepsie. And there’s one over the VT/NY border, in Hoosick Falls… so I feel like I’ve always been around them. It’s amazing there are so few remaining in the country!
Congratulations, your community survivalists have prepared for the entertainment portion of your Covid-19 experience.
Wow, what a memory! We had three drive-ins in my hometown! My brother in law was a projectionist at one and about 11-12 years old used to take me with him. It had the best hot dogs and popcorn. And one was the “dirty or adults only” one set back in the woods. We used to load up on Boones Farm and Rays 19 cent burgers and five or six crowded in a car. Remember we got stuck in the mud there and had to have a local farmer to come pull us out! Good article! Gynn
Those are great memories. Well told.
Another great blog post! Be sure to check out the surviving drive-in theater in Warwick, NY.
Thank you. The Warwick Drive-in is a treasure.
Burt , a shout out for the Hackensack / Little Ferry drive in which opened June 26 1963 showing King Kong & Godzilla . This was in both our backyards and we visited many times till closing in 1985 ( i think )
The best use ever for a converted landfill.