Auto-Theater Season

With the longest day of the year landing on June 21, the school year winding to a close and, of course, Father’s Day (June 16), the National Day Calendar for June is (mostly) all about summer. To help relieve the stress of triple-digit temperatures, this month’s calendar thoughtfully includes National Hydration Day (June 23), National Iced Tea Day (June 10) and National Bomb Pop Day (June 27 — Bomb Pops are those red, white and blue rocket-shaped popsicles). Several celebrations (more than is necessary, frankly) revolve around ice cream, including National Ice Cream Soda Day and National Vanilla Milkshake Day (both wrestling for attention on June 20 as best ice creamy drink), National Chocolate Ice Cream Day (June 7), National Rocky Road Day (June 2) and National Ice Cream Cake Day (June 27). If you’re not into sweets, the calendar has you covered with National Sunglasses Day (June 27) and National Flip Flop Day (June 14).  All signs point to a season of sweating outdoors. 

Another summer outdoor activity gets its due this month with National Drive-In Movie Day, coming to a theater near you on June 6. This revelation had me swooning in a nostalgic stupor for a couple of hours, remembering all my personal drive-in moments.  As a kid, the drive-in was a regular summer weekend outing. Dressed in my PJs, I’d screw around in the adjoining playground, then settle into the backseat with my sleeping bag and pillow to watch a movie that was certainly less interesting than the fact that I was out in public in my PJs. In high school, the drive-in was the place to realize all our American teenage dreams. Cheap movies (or free, if we were willing to hide in the trunk), junk food, beer and boys — all far from the watchful eyes of adults. Once, in high school, we went in my convertible Volkswagen Thing (my first car — a classic), with the top down, to see An American Werewolf in London.  We were so captivated by the film that we forgot that the region was under attack from fruit flies and therefore subject to nightly spraying of malathion by pesticide-wielding helicopters. I’m fairly certain there were no ill effects. (I mean, my kids have gills, but that’s normal, right?) One of the first dates I had with my husband was at a drive-in, in a car he borrowed from his job at the university library. (Not sure if the loan was sanctioned.) I think the movie was Young Sherlock Holmes, though to be honest, I wasn’t paying much attention to the film.

I love the history of the drive-in, because it’s all about a son pleasing his mother. Richard Hollingshead, sales manager of Whiz Auto Products, was a movie fan, but his mother was too large to sit comfortably in theater seats. His experiments in comfort seating led to a projector mounted on the hood of the family car, illuminating a sheet tied between two trees in the yard. That led to a patented idea, and the first “Park-In” theater opened in Camden, New Jersey, on June 6, 1933.

Hollingshead’s first theater, whose slogan was “The whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are,” had a 40-by-50-foot screen and 400 car slots, with ramps at different heights so every car had a clear view. The soundtrack was initially played on three RCA Victor speakers mounted near the screen, which sounded as bad as you’d think it did. Several other “Auto-Theaters” sprang up, but it was not until the 1940s, when the in-car speaker was developed, that the renamed “Drive-In” theater really took off.  By the late ’50s there were 4,000 drive-ins across the United States. 

The first film shown at Hollingshead’s drive-in was Wives Beware, a British film about a man who faked amnesia so he could screw around on his wife. Not exactly Academy Award material, despite having run in theaters for one week (but not a second more). And that was the quality of film historically offered at the drive-in. They showed strictly B-movies, because Hollywood’s prime material was reserved for theaters that could screen a film several times a day, not just once after dark. To help boost attendance, the drive-ins started offering X-rated films too, which helped keep many afloat into the late ’60s.  But by then, with the advent of television, and then VCRs, the drive-in culture slowly disappeared. 

In California we had our first drive-in in 1938, and at the height of the trend there were 220 across the state. Today there are about 350 still operating in the United States, with 16 here in California, thanks to an aging population of car-culture kids and an obsession with nostalgia.  Several have recently been reopened and refurbished with digital projection, which makes first-run movies available faster and easier. No more speakers, though. The soundtrack is broadcast via FM radio. (If you no longer have one of those, most theaters will rent you one.) 

Sure, open-air movie screenings are all over the place now, and I have enjoyed many over the years. Movies outside will always be a little magical. And a community coming together in a park to share a beloved classic over picnic dinners is delightful. But these are very popular events, and thus super-crowded. And when people start encroaching on my picnic blanket, I am no longer having fun. For me, the drive-in is the perfect alternative. Watching a movie outdoors, private seating that no one will step on, a picnic dinner (or classic snack-bar food, of course) and my sweetheart — it’s the perfect summer evening outing. 

Also, when I inevitably fall asleep halfway through the film, I can simply recline the seat.