The Last Stand of the Drive-In Theater: Upgrade or Perish
September 16, 2013 80 Comments
In my early childhood years, I had only two options for seeing movies: squinting at them on my family’s thirteen-inch black-’n’-white TV (and I was rarely allowed to choose what channels we watched); or seeing them writ large on the giant-sized, outdoor screen down at the drive-in theater. In a world where limited technology narrowed our choices, this competition was a no-brainer to me.
Consider the perks from my family’s perspective. The drive-in allowed us to see two movies for the price of one — sometimes three, sometimes more for those hardy souls who were dedicated enough to stay awake as they reran till dawn. As a bona fide lower-class family, bargains were vital to us.
The drive-in had a wide selection of unhealthy, affordable, terrifically fried dinner food, not just today’s overpriced, unimaginative candy and popcorn. Drive-ins are where we learned to love the tenderloin sandwich, crinkle-cut fries, and those tiny ice cream cups that come prepackaged with their own wooden, spoon-shaped dippin’ sticks. If your budget was even tighter than ours and you brought your own food from home or McDonald’s, no one cared. There were no ushers shining a flashlight in your face and inspecting your products.
The drive-in was a great excuse to get out of the house and enjoy some summertime air, weather permitting. Most drive-ins had a playground for us kids to enjoy till sundown arrived and our feature presentation rolled. In later years some of them even added arcade games at the concession stand. Rather than be confined to stiff theater seats (for which theatrical science had not yet discovered the miracle of padding), patrons could sit in their cars, lie down in the backs of trucks and station wagons, bring their own lawn chairs, lie on the roof if their parents were permissive, or even throw down a beach blanket in the next parking space if the night wasn’t too crowded.
The drive-in was our generation’s community entertainment center. Sure, the speakers were tinny, clunky, and frequently broken. (Listening to the movie on your own car radio was a ’90s innovation not yet available to us. We had to wait for auto scientists to invent a car battery that wouldn’t die if you left your ignition turned on for two to four hours.) The picture was terrible if the first film began too soon before sundown. If a large pickup truck or van parked in front of us, we had to move grudgingly to a different space. The concession stand shut down during the second film, precluding any late snacking for the night owls. If it rained, the movie would continue, but good luck keeping track of what was happening.
Those were acceptable risks. If the stars aligned and nothing went wrong, the drive-in offered our community an evening of scintillating escapism by moonlight.
Our section-8 townhouse was a few blocks away from the Westlake Drive-In. Mom had our drive-in guidelines all but nailed on our front door. While the Westlake was open for the season (roughly spring to fall) we drove in every single weekend if all of the following conditions were met:
1. If she had the money. (I was too young to be kept informed on this topic.)
2. If we had no schedule conflict. (This was very rare. Far as I could tell, my birth killed Mom’s social life dead.)
3. If the first movie wasn’t rated R. (Mom aimed to be the responsible parent.)
4. If we hadn’t already seen the first movie before. (If we wanted an encore, we waited several years for it to debut on broadcast TV. We weren’t early adopters who could afford the nascent magic of cable TV.)
These restrictions may sound harsh to some of you, but I saw a surprising number of films anyway. I’m sure I’ve forgotten dozens, though I know they included several Disney films and wacky PG comedies such as Smokey and the Bandit and Midnight Madness. I recall obscurities such as Condorman and Super Fuzz (yay super-heroes!), and at least one Roger Moore James Bond film, though I couldn’t tell you which without cheating and verifying release dates.
In my least favorite memories, these parameters sometimes meant paying for earnest, grown-up, summertime Oscar bait that was anathema to kids like me. No one that age wants or needs to sit still through the likes of the original Arthur, On Golden Pond, or Cannery Row. Heck, even Mom complained all through Cannery Row. John Steinbeck adaptations were never a proper fit at the drive-in.
Our family tradition ended when the Westlake shut down in 1982. Our last hurrah was the failed racing comedy Six-Pack starring Kenny Rogers and a crowd of foul-mouthed kids. With that our weekend movie outings ended for a time. The acreage was bulldozed and overrun with medical office buildings that remain in business and boring to this very day.
Indianapolis had plenty of other drive-ins — the Tibbs, the Clermont, the Southview, and several others on other sides of town I didn’t recognize, or in distant suburbs and small towns that would surely ruin Mom’s gas budget. I read the listings for the other drive-ins in each evening’s edition of the Indianapolis News. In hindsight I think our family stopped going to drive-ins altogether because the Westlake itself meant more to Mom than the movies did.
Years later, as an adult with a driver’s license, I checked out the other nearby drive-ins. Over time, most of those closed their doors as well. The Clermont had expanded to three screens by the time it was razed and assimilated by the nearby auto-racing park. The land where the Southview stood is now a Hardee’s and some semi-truck-related businesses or warehouses or something else too dull for me to focus on whenever I drive past. The Lafayette Road Drive-In wasn’t far from us but had shut down long before the Westlake did. I remember how their signs always advertised the coolest-sounding horror movies, R-rated forbidden fruit like The Incredible Melting Man. They were replaced with a Cub Foods grocery, which in turn went defunct years later, to be demolished and eventually replaced, with a bit of cosmic perversity, by a 14-screen multiplex.
The Tibbs still stands today, four screens strong and keeping that flag unfurled and flying high, a beloved reminder of those days of yore. The Tibbs is so hardcore retro, their official site still carries a compatibility advisory for America OnLine users.
In today’s tumultuous times, all that may soon change for the worse.
You may have seen headlines recently about how the major studios plan to save themselves millions by discontinuing the long-standing tradition of printing films on actual celluloid reels. The long-term plan is to switch to distributing new releases only in digital format. For a few studios, that plan’s a little more imminent. That’s fine and dandy for newer theaters that opened in the last several years with all-digital projectors, or for older theaters that could afford to upgrade and replace their old, reliable, increasingly obsolete equipment. Each digital projector costs upwards of $80,000, plus costs for maintenance and ongoing receipt of studio films. If you’re wondering why your popcorn now costs ten dollars an ounce and soft drinks require a loan application, that’s part of the reason why.
Very, very few of America’s remaining 360+ drive-ins operate with that kind of profit margin. Keep in mind, this predicament is in addition to their never-ending battle against the forces of Netflix, Redbox, the internet, and people who watch movies on their phones and are complete, befuddling aliens to me.
Owners are scrambling to find funding to keep their dreams and businesses alive in that order, be it via bank loans, second or third mortgages, or neighborhood fundraisers. I’ve even seen a few Kickstarter projects pleading their case to the international masses. If any or all of these methods fail, expect that 360 to dwindle into the double digits or lower over the next year or two as drive-ins die off more quickly than comic book shops. Without the new tech, they’ll no longer be able to show new films, and no one expects them to lure an equal number of viewers with the older, less vibrant, slowly degrading films that will be their only remaining content option.
A few lucky survivors have found themselves a heroic Daddy Warbucks in the folks at Honda. Through a nonprofit program of theirs called Project Drive-In, internet users who care about such matters were allowed to vote in a poll for the drive-in they’d most like to see blessed with a digital projector. The winners would see their dream and their day saved.
The first five winners were just announced, with additional heartening news: PDI has acquired enough additional funding to save four more theaters. The vote has been extended an extra week to September 21, 2013, to permit four last contenders one more chance for survival.
It goes without saying I’ve already voted for the Tibbs. Some friends and family have voted for other drive-ins out of town, as is their privilege, but this means we’re all splitting our votes between too many candidates. It doesn’t help that with twenty of them still alive and kicking, Indiana is one of the densest drive-in states per capita.
If you have a drive-in within a hundred miles of your area, now’s the time to visit Project Drive-In, locate your drive-in on their handy interactive map, and lend your support, whether by voting, donating, or just spreading the word. If you don’t have a drive-in near you, I hear there’s one called the Tibbs that’s rather keen.
Every visit to the Westlake ended with the same memory:
We never stayed all night long. We only watched the second film if it passed the guidelines posted above and if none of us were in danger of falling asleep. When the time had come to say goodbye, we pulled out of our space and joined the long line waiting to leave. While Mom stared at the cars ahead, I kept my eyes fixed on the screen nearest the exit, watching it silently for as long as I could. The closer we came to the exit, the more the screen tilted and distorted from my viewpoint, until it became nothing more than a diagonal kaleidoscope.
Even that slanted glimpse disappeared as we passed around its right edge toward Beachway Drive. Behind us the film that now faced away kept spooling regardless. In the car mirrors, all I could see was the rear of the screen as it dwindled and dissolved into the pitch black without us.