Drive-in Memories

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.

6 thoughts on “Drive-in Memories

  1. Frameline recently did a Drive-In event for the new film AHEAD OF THE CURVE.

    The SF Jewish Film Festival has opening night drive-in events planned for their Cinegogue Summer Days with the Premiere of Abby Ginsburg’s TRUTH TO POWER: BARBARA LEE SPEAKS TO ME and Oren Jacoby’s ON BROADWAY. .

    and here are the ground rules. No restrictions on making out but I doubt the snack bar is kosher.

  2. Being a film buff I always wanted to watch the movie, exploitation or Oscar-winner, and would say to my date that I knew a romantic place in the hills with a view where we could make out after the movie. The one time I went specifically to make out because I had been told my date was a great kisser, she got a headache just as we were about to start and she wanted to go home. We stayed friends but I never attempted a return visit with her.

  3. I remember that porn drive-in on 101. Every time I drove past that turn-out, I wondered how the Hell they made that work, and if the neighbors sat on nearby hillsides and watched for free.
    It disappeared years ago, of course, but I still think of it when I drive past the former site, and now I wonder if anything remains of the screen and graded rows. If so, this would be a great time for someone to restore and reopen it.
    Just one of those many spots- like the Highway 37 turnoff- that trigger memories. At our age, we’ve got a lot of ’em.

  4. Many thoughts.

    1) You lived in Hollywood w/o a car? It’s not like Manhattan with easy access to subways and other public transit. I’ll note that in “The 40 Year Old Virgin” the eponymous character got around LA on a bicycle.
    2) You lived in Chatswoth? Isn’t that the Hollywood of the porn industry?
    3) For teenagers in my youth (in TX), a common activity was smuggling people in the trunk of the car to avoid the ticket costs.
    4) When I was a teenager in the 1980s, couples didn’t go to drive-in to make out. We drove to a scenic overlook on the mountain. We went to drive-ins to goof off. The odor of alcohol and marijuana was often present at the drive-in. It was mostly male dominated. The gender ratio was probably 75/25. I saw a few slasher films there.
    5) I was in Las Vegas in December 2015. I was in an area I don’t typically venture (near the North Las Vegas airport) and drove past a multi-screen drive-in. Just to re-experience the activity, I went back that night and saw Creed. It wasn’t very crowded. I ran my car engine for most of the film but not because I was worried about the radio running down the battery. It was very cold that night after 10 minutes, my fingers were getting numb. I needed to run the car heater to stay warm.

  5. 1) I didn’t own a car until I became a parent. I always preferred walking and biking. I also hitchhiked in those years, probably to scare my mother.
    2) Chatsworth is the Hollywood of the porn industry. I had no idea. When I lived there, there were more tumbleweeds than people.
    3) Didn’t Cheech and Chong do a skit about that?
    4) Agreed. A scenic overlook is much better for making out than a drive-in.

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