The first drive-in movie theater was built in Camden, New Jersey in 1933. It reportedly cost a quarter per person or $1 for a full car. Around 1950, at the height of their popularity, there were about 3,775 drive-ins in America. At last count there were 432 drive-ins left in operation across the U.S. I went to my first drive-in movie a few weeks ago, in Lewisburg, Tn. It was built in 1946, and I’ll have to say that the prices were as retro as the theater. For a double feature, you paid $6 for adults and $3 for children – kids under 4 were free. Some good friends had invited us to see Cars2 because “it is only fitting that a movie about cars be seen at the drive-in.” The entire experience charmed me.
We got there early, while the sun was still stubbornly holding on to day. Even so, there were plenty of cars waiting in line at the entrance gate. We were able to get a great spot and decided to set up our chairs in front of the car and watch from there. The traditional car-side speakers bit the dust a few years ago, so families brought their own radios to tune in to the movie which was broadcast on a predetermined FM station. It wasn’t long before I realized that my lack of drive-in experience was a serious liability. Seasoned patrons were far more prepared than I. First of all, they owned trucks, which they skillfully backed into the parking spaces without even looking. In the beds of these trucks were accommodations finer than some hotels I have stayed in. Lazy-boy recliners, soft blankets and huge pillows filled the truck beds, while food and beverages fit for movie stars were served, all this finery and more accompanied those who “knew the ropes.” My favorite set-up was a young family parked behind us. They were clearly veterans of the drive-in, having a custom mattress snugly tucked into the bed of their truck and huge colorful pillows lining the walls. It looked like a rolling slumber party! And yes, some of them were in their PJ’s. The greatest advantage of the truck bed cinema, I was soon to find out, was freedom from the mosquitoes that lurked in the grass around the ankles of those of us on the “ground” floor.
As the crowd gathered and the sun began to surrender, this little drive- in community came to life. Friends stood around talking and sharing popcorn, while kids played football and Frisbee on the huge grassy stage in front of the screen. People were laughing and relaxing, squirmy children were running around, free to be kids, all were anticipating the fun of an outdoor experience at the movies. The setting sun left pink and coral stains on the evening sky, and in my heart I felt like I was in a perfect place – safe and happy, with good friends, in a world where people mattered and life was good. Over the loud speaker came the voice of Gary Douglas, owner of the Hi-Way 50 Drive-in, welcoming his guests and giving a few last minute instructions. Gary and June Douglas run the theater on a shoe-string budget because, having raised a family of five, they know the merit of good family entertainment at affordable prices. Not only are the movie prices affordable, but the concession stand is a visit to the fifties with hot dogs, hamburgers, cotton candy, funnel cakes and, of course, popcorn, all well under $5.00. And to top it off, they allow people to bring in their own food if they like!
The entire evening was an unforgettable experience for me. The movie was enjoyable, but just the ambiance was worth it all. This place seemed magical to me. As a piercing beam of light cut through the night sky, projecting colors onto a giant screen and catching swirling dust from the gravel lot in its path, I took it all in with fondness, savoring the goodness that comes from community, the outdoors, freedom and generosity. There is something to be said for the way things used to be – when people valued their patrons and tried to serve them well, a time when families did things together, and kids felt safe and free to be kids. I am glad that there are still a few places where these values are esteemed, places that are friendly, welcoming, and inclusive. Who knew I would get to see these rare features… at the drive-in?
A “Good” Idea:
Want to find out if there is a drive-in near you? Enter your zip code @ www.drive-ins.com and see if you luck out. If you are a newbie like me, check out their “New to Drive-In Theaters?” page.
For more about Hi-Way 50 Drive-in (including the current features and menu) go to: www.hiway50drivein.net
Finally, for the sake of goodness, let’s support small business and people who hold up the flag of goodness in our area. Encourage those who are making a difference in your community and give them your hearty endorsement. They need to know it matters to you! This is one way we can begin to “save goodness.”