Remembering Drive-In Theaters

An article in the Sunday New York Times brought back long-forgotten memories of a truly American institution: the drive-in theater. While I haven’t been to one since I was a teen, they were a part of my formative years’ experiences.

I remember horror double features, sneaking guys in the trunk, first kisses, steamy windows, and occasionally a good movie from those days of cheap entertainment. The shrinking drive-in industry is heading towards oblivion, although about 400 remain, dwindling slowly from a high of about 4,000 in 1958. Today’s version eliminates the need for the awkward speaker box with the always too-short cord, replace by tuning in one’s FM radio to hear the movie, assuming people still go there to actually watch and listen to the movie! As I recall on drive-in dates, I was so intent on the moment and what to do next that I rarely remembered the movie, while my date no doubt was intently focused on the movie, afraid of what I might do next!

When I was 10, living on the base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, cars were a luxury, but we still had outdoor theaters passing as our version of a drive-in theater. While no passion pit like most American drive-ins of the day, our movie theaters on the base were outdoor screens faced by rows of wooden benches, with nary a place where two amorous teens could do what all teens for ages have done and probably still do when they go to movies. Even though the movies were fairly old by the time they reached us in the middle of the Caribbean Sea, we welcomed the diversions.

Fortunately, not all my drive-in memories are of failed date-affections. I remember me and friends running around tapping on steamed car windows, occasionally resulting in a not-too-pleased male occupant who didn’t see the humor in our game. Drive-in food was always a highlight and horribly unhealthy (translation: tasted good), but back then eating out was rare and fast food nonexistent. I realize I’m dating myself a bit with all of this, and some readers may have no memories of the drive-in experience. Like most American originals, the telling falls short of the drive-in experience, but that’s all we can hand down. And in a decade as property values and demands for land increase, the drive-in theater may be yet one more institution fading completely from the American experience.

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