The Way We Watched

By Peter Crooks

As a wide-eyed 4-year-old in the early 1970s, I sat in the back of the family station wagon at a drive-in theater, trying to comprehend the epic tragedy of Bambi. Today my recollection of the film's pyro-spectacular finale is foggy at best, but the thrill of sitting on a vinyl bench seat and watching a movie is vivid.

I owe the memory to Richard Hollingshead, an automobile parts salesman who patented his idea of projecting films outdoors and using a large bullhorn to amplify the sound track. He opened the first drive-in theater in June 1933 in Camden, N.J. Within 10 years, there were about a hundred drive-ins across the United States, a number that increased to over 800 by 1948, as soldiers came home from World War II and RCA introduced in-car speakers for an enhanced sonic experience.

The baby boom kicked the drive-in culture into high gear—there were more than 4,000 such theaters by 1958. Outdoor cinemas (or "passion pits" as the kids called them) joined carhops and Route 66 as hallmarks of the autocentric era. Screens in the 1950s glowed with atomic-age monsters, blobs, and body snatchers. The '60s offered swingin' beach parties, motorcycle movies, and gloriously graphic freak fests like Night of the Living Dead.

All the while the parking lots were crammed full of station wagons with sleepy children (and sometimes the family dog), and car windows were steamed from the breathless gropings of teenage sweethearts. Most often, the film-as-art experience finished a distant second to the fun, fun, fun factor. Which needn't diminish the drive-in's importance to the evolution of American cinema. Acclaimed directors Francis Ford Coppola (Dementia 13) and Martin Scorsese (Boxcar Bertha) launched their stellar careers with on-the-cheap features for B movie producer Roger Corman. And no one can be more thankful for the medium than Ron Howard, who shed his child-star skin by directing Grand Theft Auto, a successful low-budget car chase flick produced specifically for drive-in distribution. An opus from Opie.

Alas, the 1970s and '80s, which brought special effects blockbusters like Jaws, Star Wars, and their sequels, were not kind to the drive-ins. The theater where I was bedazzled by Bambi is now a strip mall offering office supplies, DVD rentals, and a mighty multiplex with state-of-the-art sound, stadium-style seating, and 16 screens. Late nights munching popcorn in the comfort of a backseat have given way to commercial real estate pressures and cozy home entertainment systems. In all, there remain only about 400 active drive-ins in the United States, with 27 in California, five in Utah, and two in Nevada.

Sadly, my family drove away after just a few minutes of Bambi's second feature, Superdad, a lamebrained comedy starring Bob Crane (of Hogan's Heroes fame), due to my own father's distaste for the screwball genre. In hindsight, I didn't miss a cinematic classic, just two more hours in the wondrous vastness of a parking lot, staring at an outdoor screen that seemed to touch the stars.

Web sites like www.drive-ins.com and www.driveintheater.com keep an electronic vigil for remaining drive-ins, including the Skyview in Santa Cruz, Calif., where Boardwalk crowds flock for summer blockbusters, and the Best Western Movie Manor in Monte Vista, Colo., a drive-in theater-motel that pipes the movie's sound track into 54 rooms.

This article was first published in September 2007. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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