Movie Going: The Drive-In

I’ve been considering movies from the perspective of the personal experience – not the one where we respond individually to film as art. And not the one where our analysis of a film is guided by our personal approach to the study of the subject. No, I’m talking about the circumstances outside the movie itself that are part of the experience that color or cloud the sensing and the memory. This is most evident for me with movies seen at the drive-in theater – one of cinema’s most flamboyant, controversial and now languishing American venues.

Spencer TracyInitiation
It was a family affair, I was eight years old the first time I went to a drive-in movie. The four of us climbed into the Mercury to go see “The Old Man and the Sea” (1958, dir. John Sturges; based on a story by Ernest Hemingway). I don’t know if my parents thought my sister and I would fall asleep and leave them in peace or that it was a story we would truly find entertaining. Actually, I have no idea what my parents were thinking but that’s something that’s eluded me my whole life. I doubt, however, that they realized that just going to a see a movie at a drive-in was excitement enough to keep the experience at a heightened alertness for an extended period of time. When the movie started, I remember being entirely engaged. I believe it had to do with the stark simplicity of the visuals and narrative at a pace that a child could follow without those distractions prompting questions like, “who is he?,” “where are they now?,” “why is she doing that?,” And what child wouldn’t be transfixed by the talents of Spencer Tracy?

Hot Dog!I’m sure I didn’t grasp the significance of the film at the time. Any analysis on my part consisted of observations such as – the movie would have been better titled, “The Old Man and the Fish.” But there was a knowing feeling when it was over that something big had happened. Now, I can’t say with certainty, but that night at the drive-in might have been the event that sparked a three-year reading frenzy. The trend only continued in a moderate manner beyond that. Like my obsession with hot dogs around the same time, I overdid it and just had to back off for a while.

The teen-aged years
Fast forwarding to the teen-aged years is traveling as far from film interpretation of literature as one can go, and as you can imagine. There wasn’t a lot of movie watching going on. But it filled the need for a place to go where we could be stupid and free of parental reminders that we were being stupid. “Let’s see if we can sneak some in without paying by hiding in the trunk,” someone would suggest. Being of small stature, I was the first to get the glance. I felt honored to be tapped for this mission and pleased for my usefulness to the group. We all have our unique combinations of talents and gifts, and fitting into small spaces is one of mine – though no longer a marketable skill.

Poster for The Wrecking Crew with Dean MartinOther than that…teens at the drive-in…what can I say…the usual: beer, drama, pranks, fights, laughter, tears, make-outs and break-ups. Speaking of break-ups, I saw the movie “The Wrecking Crew” twice (1969, Dean Martin as international spy Matt Helm – yawn). The first time I saw “The Wrecking Crew” I was with Steve downtown at the Capitol Theater the night he broke up with me. I saw it again with Robbie at the drive-in. Robbie was about to enter military service and informed me that he thought it best for me if I didn’t wait for him. It was only the Reserves and the training was only six weeks – so I considered it a break-up, which it was, and decided “The Wrecking Crew” was not a movie I’d care to see again. Even now, when I encounter the visage of Mr. Dean Martin, I feel an urge to flip him the bird.

Other than that, I really can’t name a movie I saw at a drive-in as a teen; it was never about the movie. But, I’m not certain I’ll ever rid my memory of those concession stand commercials.

Photograph by Hiroshi Sugimoto from his “Theaters" seriesI imagine if a filmmaker were to make it her mission to create a film specifically for drive-in theater consumption by teen-agers, she might take a cue from photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto’s series “Theaters” ( Sugimoto’s thesis was “Suppose you shoot a whole movie in a single frame?” – one long exposure of an entire movie. Alternatively, suppose you compose a single image and project it for two hours?

Volkswagen BusThe newlyweds plan a romantic getaway – sort of
What a good idea. First, pop some corn beforehand, drinks in a cooler, pre-roll a couple of Js, back the VW bus up to a distant speaker pole, get all comfy with blankets and pillows. And hey, since it’s a bedroom-at-the-drive-in event, nighties would be the appropriate dress for the occasion. How cool is that? After all, we were taking our refreshments with us so there would be no need for trips to the concession. Wrong. Actually, it amazes me that the one detail I overlooked was the restroom.

Anatomical Diagram of the kidneys and bladderI could write an entire blog on the subject of restrooms, or lack thereof, with entries like “Me and my bladder at the Beatles concert,” “Me and my bladder fly to Blacksburg in a tiny aircraft and make an unscheduled stop at the Lynchburg airport,” (pilot to tower: “no, we won’t be needing an ambulance.”), and “How me and my bladder managed to watch almost all of the movie, “Titanic” — an upstream struggle against the deluge of watery images and sound – for 3.23 hours straight.” Fortunately, I was with my daughter who had seen the movie twice already and gave excellent advice for timing my break.

I haven’t been to a drive-in in a long time and don’t even know if there are any still operating in the area. I’ll check the database and some other sources. This might be a good excuse for a road trip. Wait! This just in… a friend informed me that there’s a drive-in theater in nearby Goochland County that opened a couple of years ago (thank you, Julie G.). Well, maybe the future of the drive-in theater isn’t so dim.

About Jere Kittle

Jere Kittle is a web designer and editor in Richmond, VA. She spends much of her spare time dreaming up stuff. Her tools are often cameras of one sort or another. Jere is a diagrammatic thinker and uses copious gestures when speaking.
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4 Responses to Movie Going: The Drive-In

  1. F.T. Rea says:

    Nice piece, Jere.

    Sometime in the mid-60s I remember going to the Twin Pines Drive-In in Southside. When we parked I had to pull in at an uphill angle, where we could see most of the screen over the tall weeds. A few minutes later a guy came out on a riding lawn mower and cut the weeds down in front of the car, which was probably my ’61 Corvair.

  2. Peter Schilling says:

    That piece was a lot of fun, and reminded me of the days spent going to the Mt. Pleasant Drive-In Theater. Unfortunately, the MPDIT lacked a fun moniker (like Twin Pines) and was literally a big screen and a cinder-block projection booth. But I remember seeing “Aliens” there and thinking, “shit, I wish I’d watched this in a theater, where I could actually *see* the thing.” The film is so dark, you could hardly tell what’s going on. But man, I miss that picture-show. Thanks for the reminder!

  3. Ernie Brooks says:

    Hey Jere,

    Really enjoyed the piece (Terry passed it along to me) – quite a vivid reminder of both phases of drive-in outings. My father had an interesting connection to the industry as he designed the layouts of a couple of Richmond facilities. I’m pretty sure the Rose Bowl was one, and the one on Patterson might have been the other. When I took over the firm in the early 70’s we were hired to go back out to one of them for some boundary line issue, and I can tell you that under the midday sun a drive-in is one god-awful place to be.


  4. Gwen Beasley Sichol says:

    We still have here in Rockbridge County (near Lexington) one of the few remaining drive-ins left in the state. It is Hull’s Drive-In and was saved a few years ago by a lot of folks who became “Hull’s Angels”. Lots of fund raisers and support from the community kept it open. ( It is open from late April through October and every weekend is packed (mainly with families; grandparents, parents, and kids) all rolling in to enjoy the 2 featured movies each Friday through Sunday. The sign on the billboard now says, “See you in the Spring.” Sounds good to me.

    Nice article on this subject. Gwen

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