I never thought that drive-in movie theaters would come back. I haven’t been to one of them (aside from flea markets) in almost 50 years. And yet, here they are again, thanks to that changer of all things, COVID-19.
For various reasons, I haven’t yet visited my nearest Drive-in, the Solano, in Concord. I hope it’s better than the drive-ins of my youth.
Before the pandemic, the phrase “drive-in movie” brought up two cultural clichés: making out in the car, and watching cheesy movies, probably produced by Roger Corman. It was as if exploitation flicks weren’t dignified enough to screen in a hardtop cinema.
I have a confession: I never made out in a drive-in movie. No, it wasn’t because I couldn’t get a girl. It’s just that most of my drive-in experiences happened before puberty. By the time I was of dating age, I was living in Hollywood, where there were many good cinemas and no drive-ins. Besides, I didn’t own a car.
But making out wasn’t the only reason people preferred drive-ins to hardtops. Big families, and I was in one of them, could save money compared to going to a conventional cinema. If I recall correctly, kids under 12 were free.
Before we moved to Hollywood, we lived in a very rural part of Los Angeles called Chatsworth (well, it was very rural back then). There, drive-ins were the movies.
I saw many cheap, forgettable movies at that local drive-in, crushed with five or six other people in a tight car. I don’t remember many of the titles of those flicks, but I do remember Dr. Goldfoot and his Bikini Machine. How can you forget a name like that? According to an IMDB’s plot summary, “Skirt-chasing SIC agent Craig Gamble and millionaire bachelor Todd Armstrong set out to foil mad scientist Dr. Goldfoot’s plot to use his army of bikini-clad robots to seduce wealthy men into signing over their assets.” I think that says it all.
But drive-ins’ reputation for showing only cheese is terribly unfair. I saw some of the biggest movies of the ’60s in the car, including How the West was Won, Cleopatra, Help!, Horror of Dracula, and From Russia with Love. (I have seen all of those since in much better situations.)
Dr. Goldfoot and his Bikini Machine
Drive-in theaters were never the best way to see a movie. While stuck in your car, you lose much of the feeling of being part of an audience. But sometimes a group experience happened. I don’t remember what the movie was, but once when the hero saved the day, people honked their horns .
Other problems were technical. With the giant screen and outdoor ambient light, the image was dull compared to a hardtop, even though they were pumping more light out of the projector – which also contributed to faded prints. From what I’ve read, but haven’t yet personally experienced, digital projection has helped with this problem.
And then there’s the sound. When I was young, the only audio option was a mediocre speaker – into which no one knows many soft drinks had been spilled – that you hung on the car window. And besides, the mono sound was coming from beside you, not from the screen.
Today, drive-ins broadcast the soundtrack through low-power FM radio. You get better sound, and it’s at least two-track. But if your car’s engine is off while the radio is on, the car’s battery could run down. If you keep the engine running, you’ll be adding noise and air pollution in a movie theater. The solution: Bring your own battery-powered radio. You may want to read this article.
The last time I went to a drive-in was in, I think, 1971 – when it was already a rare experience for me. The last time I even thought about going to one was 1978. My then girlfriend and I, driving on 101 in the North Bay, often passed by a drive-in advertising porn. We talked about going there a few times, but it never happened. If I recall correctly, it wasn’t my decision.