A Night of Classic Americana at the Drive-In

Bill Bryson wrote a book of funny essays on returning to the US with his family after having lived abroad in England for twenty years called “I’m a Stranger Here Myself.” It has about 70 mini-essays that cover different bits of Americana such as road trips and staying in motels to junk food and drive-in movies. I read the book about ten years ago, but I still remember laughing out loud at some of his reflections on things.

Often his British wife and UK-raised kids don’t “get” why Bryson loves some of this stuff. Including the drive-in movies. He explained to his family how the idea was invented by a man in New Jersey in the 1930s, but that the concept really took off in the motor culture of the 1950s, and by the end of that decade there were thousands across the country. He explained the concept to his son, “It’s simple… you drive into a field with a big screen, park besides a metal post with a speaker on it on a length of wire, and hang the speaker on the inside of your car door for the sound.”

However later, as the family arrived at the drive-in he laments, “Almost at once I began to remember why drive-ins went into such a precipitate decline [there are very few left in the US today]. To begin with, it is not remotely comfortable to sit in a car to watch a movie. If you are in the driver’s seat, you have a steering wheel in your lap the whole time. If you are in the back, you can’t really see at all. Unless you had the foresight to clean the windshield before you set off, you will be watching the picture through a smear of squashed bugs and road dirt. The sound quality from the little speakers is always appalling…[and] in a place like New England, the evenings invariably turn cool, so you shut the car windows to keep warm and then spend the rest of the evening wiping condensations from the inside of the windshield with the back of your arm.” Invariably his little outing was a disaster and the family drove home vowing to never go to the drive-in again.

But I have a soft spot for drive-in movie theaters and when I drive by old abandoned ones it always makes me sad. We had a great drive-in near the town where I grew up. I vaguely remember going with my parents a few times as a kid, but it wasn’t until high school that I realized just how fun they could be.

Once you turn 16, and get your driver’s licence it is like a whole new world opens up for you. I remember a few times a summer I would borrow my family’s minivan, load it up with a bunch of my friends, stock up on snacks and drinks and go to the drive-in. Since the movies didn’t start until it grew dark enough to see the screen (around 9 or 9:30) and that particular movie theater used to do a triple feature, it promised a late evening. They also used to raffle off free pizzas in between the movie showings. It was awesome.

So when we moved to our new place in New England, and discovered a drive-in movie theater about fifteen minutes away, I was keen on introducing P to this bit of American culture. We have now lived here for four years, and each summer we go a handful of times, usually bringing new people along to experience the drive-in.

The theater near us seems to be thriving. It has three screens and shows six movies a night (two on each screen). It charges $20 a carload of people, and you can watch any two movies (switching screens after the first showing if you want). Although the speaker poles are still in the field, now all the sound is broadcast through local radio frequencies. We pack the car with blankets and a picnic basket full of snacks (last night we had pizza, beer, and spicy chips from the Indian grocery store). You roll down the windows of the car and turn up the radio, and sit back to watch.

Last night we went with S-di and M-dai, who had never been before. Since (as Bryson pointed out) its tough to see from the back of the car, we usually spread out blankets next to the car so that everyone can see. It was pretty chilly, but we wrapped up in sweatshirts and blankets and washed down the pizza with beers while watching a silly movie. We were going to stay for the second showing but we were a bit tired and cold, and since we only paid $20 for the car you don’t feel bad if you don’t stay for the whole double feature (its also a great place to see movies that you know probably won’t be good, but you still want to see anyway, like what we saw last night).

I hope drive-ins survive until I have kids. I’d love to take them. Bring them in their pajamas and let them stretch out and watch movies until they fall asleep, bellies full of pizza, and pack them into the car for the ride home.

at the drive-in

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4 responses to “A Night of Classic Americana at the Drive-In

  1. I’ve never been to a drive-in…neither has A. He claimed that they don’t exist anymore. Cynical Jersey boy!
    There was actually one within driving distance of my hometown, and I think my brother went sometimes. I’ve always wanted to go…maybe I’ll get A to go with me sometime!

  2. wonderful simply perfect !!!

  3. Aaah the drive-in we have here in central NH is old and in terrible need of repair. It’s so nasty but I never remember that fact until after I’ve paid to get in. I took my Nepali bf to see a film on opening night this summer and the projector broke down, no chance. I’d love to find a nice one and retry the experience with him. This blog is my reminder.

  4. We went to a drive-in sometime last year and I got to go to the projection room. I was so happy to actually see one in action. I had never been to one before — both the drive– in theater and the projection room.
    I didn’t much like the little speakers but the radio-frequency thing is pretty cool, isn’t it?

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