Against the Grain

My first drive-in experience happened almost by accident. It was Labor Day weekend 1999, I was in Bridgton, Maine for a friendís wedding, and I did not know a soul. Eating alone at a local restaurant, I asked the waitress what the town had to offer. She rattled off some suggestions and then mentioned the Bridgton Twin Drive-In. I had my answer, and I eagerly asked for directions. The sky was dark by the time I made it to the theater, so I did not get much of a feel for the surroundings. I simply found an open space and looked at the screen. In photos and movies, I learned how the classic drive-ins had the big speakers patrons would attach to their car windows. Times had changed, and this theater instructed me to set my car radio so I could get the sound directly. Not as romantic, but more practical.

The theater had a triple feature going that night. I came too late for Inspector Gadget and arrived just in time for the second film, The Sixth Sense. It was worth seeing twice, and in hindsight, I enjoyed the film more once I wasnít trying to guess the ending. But the real treat was the nightís final film, Deep Blue Sea. The movieís premise revolves around a team of scientists in an underwater lab who genetically engineer intelligent sharks. Somehow this advancement is supposed to cure Alzheimerís (donít ask). Shockingly, the sharks break free and go on a rampage that would make Jaws proud. No, Deep Blue Sea was hardly an example of fine cinema. But it was fun, and it seemed so perfect for a drive-in. I felt a connection to drive-in filmgoers in the 50s watching The Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Blob, or any number of other monster movies. The whole experience was a blast.

For some strange reason I did not go back to a drive-in until last year. Some of my wifeís friends live near the Family Drive-In located in Stephens City, VA (about a 90 minute drive from DC).

They invited us to the Drive-Inís ď50s night.Ē We all dressed in a 50s getup,

... including my futile attempt to look like a greaser.

Some went even further and brought in vintage 50s-era cars:

The theater played American Graffiti. True, technically the film is set in 1962, but itís always been associated with the 50s. Once again, I had a great time.

Thankfully I did not wait another 12 years to return. Last week some friends invited my wife and me to join them at the Family Drive-In for Men in Black 3. We also stayed for Dark Shadows. Before the film we all had a picnic. Nearby, theater staff prepared funnel cakes and grilled burgers. The whole grounds had a state fair flavor. Smaller kids played on an adjoining playground, while older kids threw around footballs and Frisbees. The theater raffled off comics and other memorabilia that one of our friends donated.

What struck me most about these experiences was how the drive-ins moved in a direction contrary to most theaters. Some of the differences were tangible. So many movie theaters are in a mall as one of many attractions. The drive-in is by itself, the main event. Most regular theaters have anywhere from 12 to 24 screens. Drive-ins have one or two. The Family Drive-In charged $8 for two movies, much less than most regular theaters charge for a single film. Even the concessions were much cheaper than the norm. Taken together, these differences illustrate how drive-ins foster an atmosphere of community. Itís not near the place you hang out. It IS the place you hang out. Drive-ins are a throwback to when theaters were less modern but more fun.

Of course drive-ins are far from immune to modern pressures. The Family Drive-In ran the raffle to help raise the $140,000 it needs for digital projection. Changing times and changing tastes have not been kind. The U.S. once had over 4,000 drive-ins, now that number is less than 400. Of course drive-ins face other obstacles that most theaters donít, such as having only nighttime shows and even then only at the mercy of the weather. I hope the Family Drive-In, and the other ones, stay afloat. After all, drive-ins combine movies and cars, a match that is so intrinsically ... American.

Note: You can find information about drive-ins across the U.S.

Adam Spector
June 1, 2012

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