Summer Memories: The Drive-In

Ok, I’m going to get a little nostalgic here. Raise your hand if you miss what I consider to be as quintessential a slice of Americana as apple pie, hot dogs, and waving the American flag.  The place that launched a thousand make-out sessions, and brought together young and old. The place to be on a weekend night that boasted pony rides and playgrounds for tots, and crammed multiple friends and families members into one car, simply because admission was often charged by the vehicle, not by the number of people inside it.  Yes, I’m waxing poetic about the All-American drive-in theater.

RIP, Westbury Drive-in, 1954 to 1998. All photos, courtesy of Bob Koenig.

Today, drive-in’s, for the most part, are a distant memory.  According to pop culture expert and drive-in enthusiast, Bob Koenig, there are still some left in America–but you pretty much have to head out to rural areas to find them, where land is still plentiful.  For years, Bob has been a member of a drive-in fan club, which periodically meets up at drive-in’s in Maryland and sometimes upstate New York. Bob loves drive-in’s so much, he even tried to save from the chopping block my hometown’s Westbury Drive-in. A regular David meets Goliath, he helped take on the owner, United Artists, which wanted to tear it down to make way for a multiplex and a wholesale membership warehouse. Goliath won.

The Warwick Drive-in can be found in upstate New York.

Like Bob, I love the drive-in. The romance of it—watching films in the great outdoors, under the stars. Sipping on chocolate malts, while dining on burgers and fries with your significant other or others. Like a mini-vacation. It was an experience for the ages.

Going to the drive-in was a sign of summer and a testament to how much we Americans loved our cars—so much so that we were willing to sit in them and peer over the steering wheel to watch a film, while listening to the soundtrack through tinny speakers perched on the car’s windows.  Occasionally, the sound system was out of sync—but who cared?  You were enjoying the best of America!

This drive-in, located in Baltimore, Maryland, is still open for business.

When I was 11, my family moved to Long Island. There, I felt like I hit the drive-in jackpot. One of my first friends there, Liz, happened to live across the street from the Westbury Drive-in. I thought she was the luckiest girl in the world. Free movies all summer long! We could watch them from her back porch, although, truth be told, we couldn’t hear the sound.

I asked Liz and her, brother, Michael, what they remember about the drive-in being so close to their home. Here’s what Michael had to say:  “I loved watching the movies from my porch every night, until they put up trees around the perimeter and forced us to watch from the roof. As teens, we’d sneak in or watch from the nearby schoolyard. In the 70′s they started playing softcore flicks. There’d be car accidents every time giant boobs towered over the treeline.”

The last time I went to a drive-in was when I first moved to California, 20 years ago.  The drive-in was a great place to take little ones, since no one could hear their screams.  My son was old enough and sat in the front seat enjoying the double feature with us, while my baby daughter, slept sporadically in the back. That night, we saw a double feature, City Slickers and Back to the Future 3, which had been released the year before.  Of course, as the mom of a newborn, I dozed off by the middle of the second film, but that didn’t matter. I was in bliss.

I once went to a drive-in while in Venezuela, proof that the drive-in culture had wasn’t limited to the U.S.  I was 13 and we went to see a funny film starring a little known comic actor making his directorial debut: Woody Allen in Take the Money and Run. There were nine of us cousins packed into the car and the only way I could see the movie was by sitting on the car’s rolled-down rear window, with my legs hanging over the side.  All I remember was how incredibly uncomfortable I was, and how I kept having to adjust myself, in search of a spot in which the receded window didn’t poke my bottom.  But I also recall how I got all teary, laughing so hard. Even in Spanish, Woody Allen was hysterical.

Who knows when the drive-in’s started to disappear from our cultural landscape. It happened one by one, plunked from the landscape to make room for new construction.  “It’s all about real estate values,” affirms Bob.

Gone, without a second thought. For those of you who still live near one, make a date to see a movie there. While you still can, that is.  The rest of us can pine for the hey day of drive-in theaters, knowing that drive-in’s were once the best of summer.

About these ads

44 thoughts on “Summer Memories: The Drive-In

  1. Last week, one Friday Five question floating around asked whether the blogger preferred drive-in theaters over the traditional variety. I’d prefer to watch most my movies in the theater, but I definitely miss the days of drive-in “theatergoing” from my youth.

    I looked it up and found that we are close to a drive-in theater. We didn’t get a chance to make it there last weekend, but it’s my hope we’ll remedy that either this weekend or next. I’m so excited to see how different and how much the same it will feel after all these years.

    • Oh, you must go and then come back and tell us all about it! I so envy you. I found out that there’s a drive-in in my area, but it’s kind of far. Anyway, it is my goal to get there this summer! I’m determined. :)

  2. My theory for doing away with drive-ins was the high teen pregnancy rate :-) So much for that that, however. Have you watched the reality show 16 and Pregnant? No such show when drive-ins were popular.

    • I just came across your comment in my spam folder of all things. So sorry about that! Anyway, how horrible that there is no drive-in near you. You might want to consider finding the closest one to you–even if it means driving 800 miles to get there! Definitely worth going at least once in your life!

  3. We had a drive-in near us when I was a kid. So much fun to sit in the station wagon and watch. I haven’t been to the one near us, but I just looked it up and the latest Harry Potter is coming to our drive-in on July 15th. I just might have to go see it there for the novelty.

    • Perhaps we can make it a She Writes meetup? Are you talking about the one in Santee? I want to take my kids so they can experience it, especially my daughter who doesn’t remember the time I took her as a baby.

  4. That was our family drive in when I was a child growing up on Long Island. I sort of remember before the movie there was a little carnival of sorts with a couple of kiddie rides and cotton candy for sale. Maybe, this was a way of tiring out all the children (most of whom were in their pj’s!) so when we got into the station wagon with our blankets–we went right to sleep! lolol Good way for mommy and daddy to have a night out with their kids and no need for a baby sitter! lolol

    • Well, that was one of the beauties of having a drive-in nearby. Great for mom and dad and something for the kids, too. Best of all, the kids would fall asleep and give their parents some private time, beneath the stars.

  5. I think the high pregnancy rate theory is hysterical. And probably right.
    I have many wonderfully awesome drive-in memories from my Chicago summers. Like the time Laura Dominiak and Anne Luby crawled into the trunk to get in free, thinking wouldn’t get caught. That was the one and only time I was ever kicked out of a drive-in (although there SHOULD have been many more).
    Also…this is a great PROMPTuesday (a weekly writing prompt I do) topic…May I use it with all due credit to you? :)

  6. This is a fabulous walk down memory lane, Monica. I spent many a night at the drive-in…before the soft porn and gigantic boobs hit the screen! It was a highlight of the summer. I know that in Seattle they are still showing movies in the summer against the sides of tall buildings. Not quite the same thing as loaded in the car, but it’s the best of what is left! At least families can pack up a picnic basket, put a big blanket down and watch a movie outdoors. I think this post is tremendous. Such a perfect slice of life you have captured!

    • Thanks, Annie. Glad you like it. I’ve been toying with doing a limited series on Summer Memories, this being the first one. And there’s nothing like a good, old-fashioned drive-in experience! :)

  7. Thanks for bringing back drive-in memories Monica. Your post prompted a search for my childhood theater, the East Drive In in Aurora, Colorado. I found it thru this great blog: http://cinematreasures.org/blog, where John Gillen lamented about the day he drove by and it was being torn down: “the wrecking crew was committing architectural homicide on the place.” Since moving to California, my husband and I would take the kids to the same Santee drive-in as you, Shary. Monica is right, it would be a fun SheWrites field trip :>)

    • Thanks for the link, Susan. Very helpful, indeed. I was so glad to have the opportunity to chat with Bob Koenig. He’s such an expert on drive-in’s and has great photos, don’t you think? I wish I could have included them all!

  8. Monica, like you mention, the drive in was the perfect place for make out sessions. Not that I went to many ,since I was only able to experience a couple of movies or so, but if I’m honest, the last thing I did was watch the movie! hee hee! Thank you for sharing your nostalgia with us and awakening long forgotten memories of handsome boys who had the flexibility of yoga masters who were impressive in how they flexed their way around a steering wheel. :)

  9. The last time I went to a drive-in movie, I was 16. A group of us who worked at McDonald’s were supposed to go together, but only three of us showed: the guy I had a crush on, the guy who had a crush on me, and me… and we all knew it. Nobody had the guts to say, “So this is awkward. Let’s call it a night.” Oh no, we went through with it. The three of us squeezed into the front seat to watch “Blue Lagoon,” a movie about two innocent teens who discover sex while stranded on a desert island. We all tried not to move, so our arms wouldn’t touch. None of us could look at each other. Just one more reason to hate that silly movie. But I’ll admit, I still miss going to the drive-in theatre on a summer night.

      • Gee, I never thought about that. I suppose I would have laughed and said, “So, this is awkward. Would you two like to flip a coin, or shall we call it a night?” Then we all would have had the option for either romance or escape. Back then I didn’t trust my gut as much as I do now. I tried to tell myself I was the only one feeling flushed and embarrassed. But the air between people doesn’t get that thick unless everyone’s hormones are cooking. What can I say? We were teenagers. ;)

  10. I loved the drive in. The one I used to go to was closed to make way for development BUT thankfully they managed to find some land a little further out and reopen.

    We haven’t been in years but now that our kids are a bit older maybe we will give it a shot!

    Visiting from Lady Bloggers

  11. Thank you. I really enjoyed reading along as you shared your memory with us. I’ve never been to a drive-in movie though I hear there is one down in Vineland. I think maybe we’ll drive down one weekend just for the fun of it.

    • But definitely. There’s a lot to be said for experiencing the drive-in. Would love to know what you think of it, so please come back and let us know when you do go. I’m planning to take my kids next weekend to see the one in my area (which is about 25 miles away) to see the new Harry Potter flick. They’ll be showing it on both screens.

  12. I’ve only been to the drive in once. But, it is definitely an experience I would like to have again. We recently moved to a new state and you have inspired me to go see if there is a drive in somewhere close by!

  13. I have great memories of the drive-ins from when I was a kid. We have one left in our county and are making a date to take the kids this summer. My youngest has never even been. I feel like they’ve lost out on something that was a right of passage.

    • I like how you refer to the drive-in as a right of passage. So true! And how wonderful that you are planning to take your kids to one this summer. Would love to know how it goes, what your kids think about the experience.

  14. I’m late to the party here, but I just had to say that I, too, loved drive-ins. I slept through The Alamo. The last movie I saw at one was Godfather — in a Volkswagen Bug when it was snowing so hard that night that it was actually snowing in the car as well.

    In an interesting coincidence, I was driving through France last summer, got lost, and was desperate enough to pull into a McDonalds on the Autoroute. As I ate my McNuggets in a environment decorated to look like a Happy Days diner I slowly realized that the giant photograph of a drive-in theater I was staring at as I munched was the same Route 66 Drive-In where I had spent so many Fridays of my youth.

    • Wow! Great story about seeing the Route 66 Drive-in in a photo in France–in a McDonald’s of all places, too. You were meant to get lost and end up there, just so you could recapture some great times of your youth. Love it! :)

  15. We didn’t have a drive thru in my tiny little hometown. We did have this gorgeous old theatre that has now been converted to an events center for birthday parties and special celebrations.

    About forty minutes away, there’s a drive in. Sometimes when I go down to my hometown, the kids and I make a special trip to see whatever’s on. The restrooms are horrific though, and anything in the Rio Grande Valley will boast nachos instead of burgers and fries. Also, don’t bring surprised to see someone bring an inflatable mattress and several boxes of fried chicken.

    That’s how the RGV rolls…

    • Oh, dear! You paint a pretty picture. Maybe going to the drive-in you’re talking about, isn’t so much for going to see a movie, but rather, to just watch the riff-raff–I mean, folks–around you. :)

  16. I enjoyed reading this post. I’ve never been to a drive-in. I’d like to someday. I imagine that it’s like something out of Grease. If there are still some in existence in the United States I’ll try to take one in on my next road trip there.
    The rest of your blog is good reading too.

    • Drive-in’s are the perfect summer experience! Find out if there’s one near you, and by near, I mean if it’s a five-hour drive or less to get there. Then, go! It’s an experience not to be missed. Soon, the only way future generations will know about drive-in’s will be to read about them in Wikipedia!

  17. I love this post and all the comments! In Europe the US drive-in culture was almost mythical, a part of the Amercian Dream we saw on our (indoor) cinema screens.

    • How fascinating to see it from your perspective. Something we, here in the states, took for granted for so many years, readily available to us. I treasure those days, for sure, and the memories, too. Thank you for sharing yours!

  18. I’ll confess: I haven’t ever been to a drive-in. I know, I know, being your 90s kid I should have gone to one, but I’ve lived in Los Angeles all my life and you can understand why I never got to experience the drive-in.

    My mother has, though. She grew up in Italy – and yes, the drive-in existed there too. She’s told me tales of the movies she would go to watch there with her sister and family. ‘A picnic with a movie,’ she once told me.

    After reading this, I want to experience the drive-in even more. But I don’t think I’ll have a chance too. Still, I’ll be on the watch. ;)

    Ashley

    • Hi Ashley! Thank you for reading my drive-in post. It’s been one of my favorites to write. The drive-in will always be a part of our American culture. The sound wasn’t the best, after all, most of the time you’d listen on either tinny speakers or your car radio. But the charm, the carnival atmosphere, the children running about, then falling asleep in the beds of pickup trucks or back of vans, these memories are all priceless. There are a few left in the country. Might have to drive a ways to get there, but it’s worth experiencing just once before they’re all gone. How wonderful that your mother can share her memories with you!

Comments are closed.