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DRIVE-IN THEATERS ARE STILL THE BEST MOVIE THEATERS
BILL WOOD | JANUARY 8, 2019
When I mention the classic drive-in theatre experience to folks, I usually get one of two responses; a fond smile or a blank stare. I have found that this response directly correlates to the age of the person I’m conversing with. If you’re the type that gets all googly-eyed at the mention of drive-ins, congratulations! You’re in the Cool Kids Club! But seriously, how awesome are drive-in theatres? They are 100% pure Americana, monuments to the high-water mark of lowbrow motion picture entertainment. It’s where the local kids would congregate every weekend to bring their date and watch whatever cheesy monster flick was showing. If you didn't have the two bucks to get in, you were usually the guy hiding in the trunk.
Some of my fondest childhood memories were formed at Sacramento’s Star-Lite drive-in, just off of Arden Way. Mom would make hot dogs at home, wrap them in tin foil, then pop the hood and heat them up on the engine when we got to the theatre. It was where I first sampled pizza, popcorn, and any combination of candy, junk food and soda pop. For a kid living out in the sticks, the drive-in was my Disneyland, there was nothing better than kicking back with friends and family and watching a thoroughly forgettable flick beneath the summer stars.
I don’t recall many of the drive-in movies I saw as a wee lad, most have faded with age. However, I do recall seeing Ralph Bakshi’s X-rated animated feature Fritz The Cat at the Star-Lite. To this day I wonder if my parents thought we’d be watching another Bugs Bunny cartoon that night. In addition to the Star-Lite, we also had the 49er in Del Paso Heights, the Skyview in Southgate, the Sunrise in Citrus Heights, and the Thunderbird and Sacramento 6 In Rancho Cordova, the latter of which—when last I checked—is still in business as part of the West Wind drive-in chain. I’m sure there were even more drive-in theaters in the area, they were all over the place back then.
If the movie themselves were often forgettable, the commercials definitely were not. Who can forget the classic drive-in ads with the animated dancing snacks just begging to be devoured? Even if you've never been to the drive-in, I'll bet you know what some of these glimpses of lo-fi advertising perfection look like. If not, they're out there on YouTube, easy enough to find. Just make sure you eat a proper meal before watching these commercials, as the food on display will likely make your stomach turn! It all looked so delicious back then, I guess you had to be there.
I’m willing to bet everyone over a certain age has at least one unforgettable drive-in experience. Mine was in my senior year of high school, I went to the theatre still aching over a girl who had broken up with me earlier that week. The feature attraction was a then-unknown low-budget horror film called The Evil Dead, which was playing at the drive-in on its first day of release. By the time was movie was over, the heartache was over and I had a new obsession! Me and my buddies went back the next night, then the week after that. We probably ended up watching The Evil Dead at the drive-in more than anyone not directly involved with the making of the film! It's still one of my all-time favorite horror flicks, the wife and I even visited the site of the original cabin in eastern Tennessee (there's nothing left to see, it's all been ransacked).
Most drive-in theatres are long gone, either left in disarray due to the rising costs of maintenance (this is where you’ll usually find your local swap meet) or reduced to rubble altogether because the property is too damned valuable to be showing slasher flicks to an ever-dwindling audience (this is where you’ll usually find your shiny new condos). Thankfully there are a few that still remain. In fact, the missus and I have attended quite a few drive-ins in recent years, including the West Wind in Glendale, AZ and the Rodeo in Bremerton, WA. The Rodeo in particular is a fantastic experience, with its massive outdoor screens framed by the majestic Pacific Northwest forest. All-digital with HD presentation, they even rent small radios so that you don't accidentally drain your car battery (many establishments also offer free jump starts).
If all of this has you hankering for a trip to the drive-in but nowhere to go locally, it’s easy enough to stage your own home-brew drive-in experience with a few patio chairs and a laptop. (You could splurge for a nice projector and screen to enhance the experience, but a laptop or tablet just works fine if you’re okay with the smaller screen.) Fire up some popcorn and stream a few vintage drive-in commercials off of the intertubes for a few minutes, then it’s off to the main attraction!
And what films go best with a drive-in movie night? Well, this obviously depends on your personal taste, but you really can’t go wrong with old-school horror. There are tons of public domain movies that legally can be streamed for free from a variety of sources. Number One on my personal list is Herk Harvey’s 1962 classic Carnival Of Souls, a stylish and unsettling film that was once rated “the best drive-in movie of all-time.” Number Two would be George Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead, which you may have seen once or twice already. If you want some laughs, check out some Buster Keaton shorts or Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space, a perfect blend of (mostly unintentional) comedy and horror. Can’t decide on which movie to watch? No problem, most drive-ins were double features anyway! Whatever your cinematic decision, recreating the vintage drive-in experience is a guaranteed blast. - BW