At the Drive-In: A Remembrance

COVID-19 has Americans rediscovering a marvelous mid-century tradition.

It gives me zero pleasure to say “I told you so,” but after this country lost so many of what Variety once called “ozoners,” drive-ins — the only movie theaters left open during this surreal pandemic summer — are back.

Based out of San Rafael, and with six theaters across the country, West Wind Drive-ins represent “the largest drive-in chain in the world.” They operate the closest drive-in to San Francisco: the Solano D-I near Concord.

There’s easy access to this two-screen D-I from three different East Bay freeways, and it’s blessedly located outside the marine layer. If you go, it’s an actual summer night out there. No being blasted by coastal winds, as the nearby palm trees turn to silhouettes with the setting sun. The screen looms over the parking lot, promisingly blank, as private planes descend to the nearby airport.  

Even on a Tuesday it was doing good business. Family Night means $5.50 per ticket, and minivans packed the place for the second-run choices of The Goonies or Zootopia (with a later night showing of The Avengers). It is highly possible that 1985’s The Goonies — a millennial cult classic about a pirate’s treasure and a ragtag gang of Oregon kids — is on more screens now than any other movie in America.

This showing of The Goonies’ was nearly sold out, and a few more showed up for the Zootopia screening. So many of the children in attendance must have been able to stream the timely story of Officer Judy Hopps overcoming her prejudices via their Disney+ subscriptions. Their backlit televisions and handsets would certainly have provided a clearer picture of the darker interior scenes, which were dim on a drive-in screen.

Yet there they all were, scads of children. I hadn’t been to the Solano D-I in 32 years, so the strange thing was the present-tense quality of the experience. This might have been because of the way the kids, all safely masked, took their places in the back of their moms’ vans, parked with their back bumpers facing the screen. The evening didn’t have some air of tradition around it. West Wind didn’t respond to my messages, but their website shows that one popular revival at their theaters is Grease. There’s a studiously midcentury aesthetic apparent in their web page design, where an animated 1955 Ford Thunderbird convertible pulls up and parks. But what’s going on here is more than just a nostalgia trip.

That’s not to say nostalgia isn’t a part of the experience. Drive-in lovers worldwide swooned at the gloriously cinephiliac drone shot in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood where the camera hops the towering screen of the Van Nuys Drive-in as it was in 1969, to alight next to Brad Pitt’s sleek Karmann Ghia. 

The Van Nuys Drive-In. (Photo: John Margolies, Library of Congress)

I asked Joe Bob Briggs for his reaction to that shot. He wrote back: “I was orgasmic.”

For years in print and on television, Briggs, America’s foremost drive-in film critic warned America against what it was losing as drive-ins closed. In his column, which was syndicated in the Chronicle, he always concluded with a roster of that week’s casualties. And now he’s lived long enough to see a comeback for this unique cinematic experience.

“I do feel vindicated,” he writes via email, “because not only were the arbiters of taste unaware of the drive-in’s importance to American culture, half of them seemed shocked that drive-ins still existed. The nation discovered in March of 2020 that it needed two things above all others: toilet paper and drive-ins.”

THE PASSION PIT

During long-ago drive-in summers, I was lucky to see a number of box office failures that time has re-evaluated. One was John Boorman’s Exorcist II: The Heretic at a D-I somewhere in the San Fernando Valley. This was really half-seen. The girlfriend got bored and randy, and we followed the old rites of what once was called “the passion pit.”

Berkeley-based film historian Mike Monahan says: “Some of my first sexual experiences were witnessed by Ernest Borgnine.” It was certainly memorable to be going to town while a 70-foot tall James Earl Jones in African shaman makeup shouted “PAZUZU!” at you through the windshield. 

William Friedkin’s 1977 box office flop Sorcerer was a terrific green-hell remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear. I saw it at the Studio D-I in Culver City, behind the wheel of a 1964 Impala that was as malignantly sentient as Christine. The Chevy hated me. It knew it was a classic, and that I was just the useless hippie temporarily piloting it. It had a cracked block, and always broke down in the most remote locations. One time the brakes failed as I was sailing into Wilshire Boulevard at 35mph. Driving that thing was as scary an experience as hauling decayed nitroglycerine over a bumpy South American road, so I ended up calling the beast “Sorcerer” in honor of the doomed truck of Sorcerer’s title. Years later, when it was a graffitied wreck, the Studio was used as the backdrop for a shootout in Michael Mann’s Heat.

Some fan commemorated the demolished Skyway Drive-in in Seminole, Oklahoma, on the Cinema Treasures site, lovingly photographing the rusty bits and pieces of it hidden in the snake-infested weeds. That’s where I saw Beneath the Planet of the Apes, a half century ago this summer. In deepest darkest Oklahoma, the stars were so thick you might as well be in outer space. I was 12 and I hadn’t seen the original Apes. I was in for a big shock. The destroyed Statue of Liberty with the waves lapping around it was bad enough. Then came the hallucination sequence: upside-down crucified gorillas, and the tottering colossal statue of the Lawgiver weeping tears of blood. Later, a congregation of hideously disfigured mutants held their high mass beneath the ruins of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, worshipping the doomsday atom bomb. I was warped, and I remain so to this very day.

The skeeviest thing I saw on an outdoor screen was at the rough old Geneva Drive-In near the Cow Palace — a haunt of the late Hunter S. Thompson. It was a double bill of Grave Desires and Cemetery Girls (one of the many titles for Vampire Hookers). In the latter, John Carradine was a vamp prowling Manila, siccing his scantily-clad female minions on the Navy sailors. As an actor, Carradine would never turn down a chance to recite Shakespeare. Stimulated by evil, he treated a tied-up male victim to Hamlet’s soliloquy… When Carradine is through to-be-or-not-to-being, the hostage gasps, “You’re crazy!”

Carradine: “And now, I think it’s time for you to shuffle off this mortal coil.”

A FAMILY AFFAIR

I’m fattening the legend that drive-in movies were full of frights, fights and boobs — material too wild for a normal theater to contain, attended by tongue-wrestling teens. In fact, family attendance and family movies were essential to the rise, and the rebirth, of the drive-in.

The first drive-in was built in Camden, New Jersey in 1933 by Richard M. Hollingshead Jr. He patented certain elements, including the fan shaped parking lot to give the most sight-lines to the most people, as well as the elevated berms that raise the front wheels of the car to make the view better. It’s similar to the “raking,” the downward slant in the floor of a legitimate theater. In 1938, the MGM’s distribution company Loews successfully convinced a Boston court that bumps in the ground constituted landscaping, not an invention. Free from patents, the boom began. 

There were about 100 drive-ins nationwide at the dawn of WW II. The theaters really got their start as 1950s suburbs were slapped up all the way to the farmlands. Drive-ins catered to families with bottle warmers for suckling infants, and jungle gyms and teeter totters under the screen. Out there, children waited for the sun to set while the adults smoked and talked. In the 1950s, people dressed up to go to a downtown theater. But you could come clad any which way to a drive-in, in housecoat or jumpsuit, with kids in pajamas so they could be carried straight to bed after they conked out.   

Cut out of the market for major studio pictures until the landmark U.S. vs Paramount case of 1948, drive-ins at first screened inexpensive features. Alameda’s Bob Lippert, Sr., who owned a chain of drive-ins, produced dozens of low-budget movies for his screens… and occasionally masterpieces, such as two by Sam Fuller, I Shot Jesse James (1949) and The Steel Helmet (1951).

The original D-I sound system was one loudspeaker under the screen. Older readers will remember the later development — steel monaural monitors about the size of a brick, which were hung on the door of the car. They’ll also recall what happened when you drove away late at night with the speaker still attached.  There are plentiful warnings against this absent-mindedness in the array of drive-in commercials, compiled on Amazon Prime. Here are preserved an array of (barely) animated notices that the show will start in 3 minutes. Here are tours of the concessions area, red-shifted Eastman-color hamburgers, and sodas served in unbelievably tiny paper cups. Again and again is the familiar closeup of the steel popcorn popper belching kernels. Sixty years later, anyone making a TV news report about any given drive-in always goes for this shot.  

After cinema sound design became intricate, and Dolby made its debut, drive-ins began using low-frequency FM channels to broadcast the sound track over car radios. More technology means better sound — many cars now come with subwoofers built in — but more technical difficulties: push button ignition cars have a feature that turns off the radio after ten minutes when the car is in accessory mode. Battery failures are a part of the experience, which is why most theaters have a car-starter on wheels on the premises. There is a hack online to get around this automatic dead-man’s switch in push button ignition cars.  

Development swallowed up so many drive-ins when the land got expensive. In times of economic woe, drive-in theater owners did without resurfacing and repainting their screens. This made the image worse, particularly when the screen was located someplace smoggy and particulates pitted the finish.  Light pollution is a problem in old school drive-ins, along with the shadowy aesthetics of modern cinematography. 

Briggs suggests a solution: landscaping. “Glare can be eliminated by not cutting down the trees. The last X-rated drive-in, the Apache in Tyler, Texas, is located in a fairly populous area on a well traveled highway, but it’s surrounded by forest so there’s no interference with . . . well . . . with whatever goes on there.” 

It’s worth calling the Apache’s recorded number, just to listen to how the management avoids the painful subject of what it is exactly they’re showing. It’s almost like “We can neither confirm or deny that we’re screening porn.” The X-rated drive-in was a subset of this vast empire of ozoners, and is a story in itself. On the outskirts of Petaluma, straddling the county line, the X-rated Sono-Marin D-I once stood. Legend has it that the screen was on the Sonoma side and the projection booth was on the Marin side, so the sheriffs had no idea who held jurisdiction.

CROSS-COUNTRY SCREENS

One has neither space nor stomach to list the dead drive-ins in the San Francisco Bay Area. At the peak, there were some 3,000 to 4,000 drive-ins nationwide. Today there is less than a tenth of that number left. Swap meets helped pay the rent and saved some of the theaters from the bulldozer. But when Parade magazine did a ‘The 50 Best Drive-in Movies in Every State” article, they had to bend the rules a little. Five of the states, including New Jersey and New Mexico, only had one drive-in each. It’s a harder pick for best drive-in in Texas or Pennsylvania. 

Texas has always been about drive-ins. Briggs remembers the glory days: “I’m most familiar with the drive-ins of Texas, and the most magnificent of those — built by Gordon McLendon, inventor of Top 40 radio — was the Gemini in Dallas. John Wayne, Raquel Welch and Stephen King are among the celebrities who have stood atop its voluminous concession stand roof and addressed massive crowds. I saw many a drive-in premiere there.”

Eastern Pennsylvania, a vacationland for New Yorkers, has a number of heritage drive-ins. Here is the multi-generational favorite Becky’s D-I. Not far away is Shankweiler’s: at 86 years old, it is the nation’s oldest. Here also is the Mahoning, equipped with 35mm projection, with a strong focus on ’80s gorehound fare. Out in the cornfields, Freddy, Jason and Michael Meyers still rule.

“There’s a drive-in outside Billings, Montana, called The Amusement Park that’s so old school it hurts,” Briggs notes. “No roundup of the most impressive drive-ins in America would be complete without mention of the Movie Manor in Monte Vista, Colorado, where you can watch the drive-in screen from your motel room, an idea recently copied by the Fairlee Motel in Bradford, Vermont.” 

The Trail Drive-In, Amarillo, Texas. (Photo: John Margolies, Library of Congress)

Lately, drive-ins are starting to feature more rarefied fare. West Wind rents their screens to groups. Thus, the recent sold-out world premiere documentary Ahead of the Curve for San Francisco’s Frameline Film Festival. Down south, the Tribeca Film Festival had a pop-up drive-in in the parking lot of the Rose Bowl. The American Cinematheque has been scheduling one night stands at the reportedly soon to close Mission Tiki D-I in the town of Montclair, deep in the San Gabriel Valley.   

As noted in the SF Weekly, this Labor Day weekend San Francisco will see a new outdoor movie playing in one of its only open spaces — the Bay itself. The proposed screen will be surrounded with a flotilla of party boats, of the sort seen in Paris on the Seine. Pop up drive-ins could be installed around here — if the space could be found. And it could be found, given so many empty brick and mortar shopping centers with vast parking lots.  

The 25-year-old Brainwash Film Festival in Oakland offers indie and experimental films projected on various East Bay walls for an audience in cars, and the film festival organizers are planning on a Labor Day show. Brainwash’s Dave Krzysik says the schedule isn’t ready yet.

“We are going to try to have more than one series, which would mean different locations for each series,” he explains. “With COVID and ongoing social disruption, we’re all going to have to get good at last minute planning.”

Briggs notes, “I’ve been to the Coyote in Fort Worth and the Galaxy in Corsicana, Texas, and other relatively new drive-ins across the country, but I haven’t visited the pop-ups that are programming in Wal-Mart parking lots. The ironic thing is that, for 30 years, it was Wal-Mart that was buying up the drive-ins, shutting them down, and putting up big box stores. It’s like the ghosts of that land couldn’t be eradicated. They have risen up to rule it once again.”

ONCE AND FUTURE

A Bay Area boutique drive-in could look something like Doc’s Drive-In in the town of Buda, Texas, about a 20 minute drive from Austin. What you are about to read will reinforce the idea that people have more fun in Austin than they do here. Doc’s Drive-in screen hangs on an ingeniously-made structure of three repurposed stacked shipping containers. Says co-owner Sarah Denny, “My husband and I use containers for a lot of things. We thought ‘why not?’” 

Sarah and her husband Chris opened Doc’s in October 2018. The theater has three movie-themed tiny homes for overnight rentals. It has a bar, concessions, and a natural swimming hole on the premises. (The pond is closed during the pandemic, but the hiatus gives the owners a chance to get a beach installed.)

The location is about more than just showing movies. Austin women Bri Houk and Lindey Leaverton were forced to cancel their wedding because of the pandemic. So they had their ceremony at the theater. “We’ve had huge celebrations,” says Sarah Denny, “and a lot of live music events. We’ve had a Christmas fair. Santa comes out and meets the kids.” Programming includes evergreens like The Goonies and The Princess Bride, as well as a not-for-children films, such as The Invisible Man

There are downsides to the business, particularly film rentals. “One problem is dealing with studios,” said Sarah. “Things cost more than you want them to be.” And no matter how fun a place might be, it won’t be spared culture wars today. “To be honest with you, one drawback is having to be really nice to people even if you don’t want to be — sometimes they go at you if they don’t want to wear a mask.”

Doc’s reserves spaces to keep vehicles safely apart. Viewers sit in their cars, or on the back ends of their trucks — the epidemic means a prohibition of sitting in that sweet spot in a lawn chair right in front of the grill of a car. 

On YouTube videos, Chris Denny stresses the nostalgia factor of what he’s built. But many of the new customers are far too young to have gone to the drive-in as kids. Doc’s Drive-In customers are a big mix of ages, but most are between 25-35. Says Sarah Denny, “They’re super excited to do something they haven’t done before. I see them watching the sunset. You know how people are looking at their phones all the time? Here, they’re interacting with each other.”  

Back in the 1990s, I interviewed Kerry Seagrave, author of Drive-in Movies: A History for Metro Silicon Valley: at the time no new drive-ins had been built since the 1970s. “If … there were no new McDonald’s built in the last 25 years, you’d know something’s wrong,” Seagrave said.

But new drive-ins have been built since then, from Nebraska to Texas to Amenia, NY. The Lighthouse 5 in Eustis, Florida, engineered to be the world’s largest, is slated to open in 2022. In short, despite all the Route 66 and American Graffiti signifiers today’s drive-in theaters flaunt, they have a potential that goes beyond being a nostalgia act.

I’ll never get over the excitement of being a kid in the back of the car at night on the L.A. freeway, seeing the roadside monoliths adorned with murals of cowboys or padres or drum majorettes, glimpsing the blue-white beams of the film flickering as we sped by. They were a stunning sight in the endless flats of Los Angeles, exactly as captured by Tarantino in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.

Now there’s a whole new chapter for what seemed to be a dying way of life.

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