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.