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Driving in for a bit of Nostalgia…

Posted Dec 23 2008 9:31pm

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I remember it vividly when I was small... warm summer evenings, popping popcorn into a large grocery sack, changing into my pajamas and piling into the car with my parents and my brother to see a movie. Movies were more of a treat in the early 70’s, more like an event. You didn’t go to the local multiplex… instead, you went to the drive-in. The old station wagon would drive into the giant sloping parking lot – we kids always wanted to park in the front because the playground was directly below the screen… Mom and Dad knew best though, and we always parked at the top (the playground was unkempt anyway). A trip to the restroom from the front of the lot would have taken eons, where the back of the lot was a hop, skip and jump away from the inevitable trips to the little girls room. Once we found a spot, Dad would roll down the window and grab a speaker (we’d all cross our fingers that it would be a working one or else we’d have to find another parking spot). If we were lucky on a chilly evening, we’d find a speaker that also featured a heater (which usually was quite loud and seldom produced the desired effect).

We couldn’t wait until it got dark and… finally … the movie would start. Always a double feature and always lots of great trailers not all for movies, there were also ones for local attractions or stores. Some of my favorite things were always the little commercials during intermission with dancing hot dogs and soda cups parading around in a circle singing the “ let’s all go to the snack bar ”. I remember seeing movies like “ That Darn Cat ”, “ Support your Local Sheriff ” and “ Herbie the Love Bug ”. I think I slept more than watched the movies (they did, after all, start fairly late) – but it’s the memories of the process and the place that still linger in my mind.

As a young adult in the 80’s, the heydey of the drive-in was over and they were on their way out. Our town was down to one (there were several in the heyday) and my friends and I (and later, my boyfriend and I) would go there because it was a cheap way to spend a Saturday night. The movies we watched were different then, “ Top Gun ”, “ Breakin’ 2 – Electric Boogaloo ” and “ Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles ” were on the marquis. If our dates were really cheap, they would take us to the cemetery across the street and we’d have to sit on the grassy hill and watch the movie without sound ( don’t worry, it wasn’t a place were anyone was interned, it was in front of the office ). The movies weren’t memorable, but the company was usually fun and, once again, the process and the place held fond memories.

I still, to this day, have a re-occurring dream where I go to a drive-in that’s kind of like a secret one, behind a hill with lots of pine trees around and there’s a secret road to get there. It’s not a real place that I had ever been to, but when I wake up, I always wonder if maybe it is one that I had forgotten about… and maybe it was still open! I’m not obsessed with drive-ins (really, I’m not!), they just held such fond memories that I so badly long to re-create.

It’s now 2008 and my children are growing old enough to stay up long enough to see a movie that late in the evening (it would still start about 1 ½ hours past their bedtime, but I think they could handle it on a non-school night). Several years ago, I began to research drive-ins on the Internet… Were there even any left in my area?.. Did they play movies that would be appropriate for kids?… my search turned up saddening results. In our area, there used to be half a dozen or more within a 30 minute drive and now there were none.

There did happen to be one in Lakeport, CA (more than 1 ½ hours away over curvy [read: carsick, vomiting] mountain roads) and one in Sacramento (equally far away, but accessible via a six lane interstate freeway). I so wanted my children to experience a drive-in movie and Mr. Pink Lemonade (Eric) and I talked about taking them… it was just so very far away – we’d have to stay in a hotel that night… was it worth paying for a hotel room just to watch a movie in the car? My heart said “YES!!” for the sake of nostalgia, but Eric, being the sensible person he is, (and not having the same fond drive-in memories that I did. I recently learned that he had never been to a drive-in movie until college!!) declared it not worth the expense. He reasoned that, for $50 (about 1/4 the price of a hotel room & drive-in), we could sit in comfortable seats in an air-conditioned theater with THX sound, a giant tub of popcorn and sodas – I reasoned that this was the same old “big screen experience” that we have at least 20 times per year (usually more) – fun, but not the same. I wanted my kids to be able to sit on the floor of the mini van in their pj’s with sleeping bags and a giant paper grocery sack full of popcorn. I wanted them to be able to fall asleep when they grew tired of watching the movie, while cuddling their favorite doll.

So, I continued my search for a drive-in movie. Whenever we would travel I would check to see if there was a drive-in in the town we were staying. In all our travels, it just never seemed to work out.

Until now

One of the drive-in theaters about 30 minutes away had recently re-opened after being closed for many, many years. When I found this online, I practically skipped all the way to the backyard where Eric was out watering to tell him the good news. WE WERE FINALLY GOING TO GO!! All we had to do, was wait for Collette’s summer school to be done and an appropriate movie to play and the memories were ours for the making!

Weeks of waiting went by and finally the day came! Little Miss Lauren and I spent several hours cleaning out Eric’s mini van… vacuuming, washing windows, and convincing Eric to take out the middle row of seats. With all the enthusiasm of a trip to Disneyland, I helped Lauren load in their sleeping bags, pillows, a doll for each and a portable radio (including extra batteries) as now drive-ins do not offer the cute tinny-sounding “hook over the window” speakers, they broadcast the soundtrack via and FM radio station. There were two screens playing that evening, one playing " Wall-E" and " The Hulk", the other playing " Hancock" and " Get Smart". We had already seen both Wall-E and The Hulk, but Lauren did not want to see Hancock or Get Smart - with the help of a little bribe (we made chocolate chip cookies together to take with us in exchange for movie choice) we decided to see Hancock and Get Smart - it was a bribe that did not come without consequence, however... have you ever tried to bake cookies when it's 100 outside with no air conditioning?... let's just say it's not fun.

We were ready… the girls were excited… Eric - not so much.. But I was determined to make memories that my girls would look back on as fondly as I still do. It had been a hot day in the Napa Valley (100), but even hotter in Concord where the drive-in is located (105!) so it was still quite warm when we pulled our van into the admission line at 7:30 that evening. The girls occupied themselves with the newness of being able to be in the van without being tied down with seat belts, sitting on the floor of the van while we waited in the admissions line until they began to let us in at 8:00. Finally, the orange cones were removed from the entrance and the young man stood ready to take our money at the booth. It turned out that we were there on "Family Night" and we only had to pay $4.75 each for Eric and I - the girls were free (can you beat $9.50 for four people for a first-run double feature?).

By 8:10 we were parked in our chosen spot (as in years past, not too far from the back in case of an " I need to go!" moment). Our radio was tuned to the appropriate FM station and we snacked on popcorn and chocolate chip cookies and waited until the movies would begin. As the minutes ticked by, the lot filled, almost to capacity, with other families and couples enjoying the warm summer evening. Most, it was evident, had been here before and came armed with camp chairs and coolers, footballs and pets. They snacked and drank, played and chatted until the movie was to start - it was a very social kind of evening. We opened the windows, the back door and both side doors of the van - it was almost like being outside - what a gorgeous evening!

The movie began and, although I was somewhat disappointed in " Hancock" - it was okay, just had a little more violence than I thought it would (I thought it would be funnier than it was) - but the girls weren't paying much attention anyway - they were busy going from sitting in their seats, to laying on the floor, to drawing pictures of their experience that evening. Of course, the occasional inconsiderate driver would come in late with their headlights full beam, shining right on the screen and the lady in the concession stand would have to come on over the movie telling everyone to turn off their lights, but other than that, everyone was on their best behavior.

When " Get Smart" started just about 11:00, the girls were exhausted ( after all, it was 3 1/2 hours past their bedtime ). They made it about 15 minutes into the movie and laid down on the pile of sleeping bags on the van floor and curled up with their pillows and their special friends and fell asleep... in the warm, open air of the summer evening, with the movie playing in the background.... Mission Accomplished!

We plan to take the girls again... maybe before summer vacation is over if there are some more "kid " movies playing. Next time, we'll take our camp chairs and a cooler filled with sandwiches and sodas - we'll have a late dinner, watch a couple of fun movies... and make some more memories.



In honor of the Drive-in Movie's 75th Anniversary this year, re-live a bit of the past by going to a drive-in in your part of the country! If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, you can visit the one we did... The Solano Drive-In, or if you're in another part of the country, you can check out these websites for listings of open drive-in's... Drive-ins.com and Drive-In Theaters.com - with any luck, you'll find one not too far away from where you live!



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