In a world... where movies and cars seem to have been made for each other... a dying breed of theaters cater to people and their automobiles. The venues are slowly becoming extinct... even as a small group of intrepid adventurers continue their struggle to keep the traditions alive. Coming to a drive-in near you--if you can find one. This film has not yet been rated. (All apologies to the memory of Don LaFontaine.)
The turn of the previous century witnessed the rise of the mass availability of two of the greatest inventions from the 1800s: the motion picture and the automobile. New to the world, short silent films and hand-built horseless carriages had a long way to go to become the products we know today--and it was not until the 1930s that the paths of these two inventions crossed.
Richard Hollingshead opened the first drive-in theater on 6 June 1933 on Crescent Boulevard in Camden, New Jersey. Drive-ins were soon popping up all over the country. By the early 1960s, more than 4,000 drive-in theaters dotted the American landscape. Today, fewer than 400 remain, meaning we are raising a generation of children who have never experienced an outdoor movie.
Not my family though!
My wife's first open-air film experience was at the Moonlite Drive-In in Bedford, Pennsylvania, where we saw a John Travolta double feature of Michael and Phenomenon. Fifteen years later, and it is time for our three children to experience film al fresco.
So, one recent late-summer afternoon, we loaded the kids into the back of my current test vehicle--an Infiniti EX35--along with everything we might need for a night of watching movies. The destination of our tank-of-gas adventure was Becky's Drive-In in Berlinsville, Pennsylvania.
Back in 1936, William "Becky" Beck had moved his family-room movie theater out of doors. For the next three years, the movies--most of them Westerns--found audiences in restaurant parking lots or baseball fields. After nearly a decade wandering around rural Pennsylvania, Becky's nomadic theater settled down in Berlinsville and became the Route 45 Drive-In. With his wife Alice and their children, the theater entertained the locals and fed them a variety of tasty treats, including Alice's homemade French fries.
For the past 65 years, Becky's Drive-In has remained in the Beck family. Becky himself died in 1987, and Alice followed in 2007. Their four surviving children and grandchildren keep the movies flickering away on two screens every summer before closing each season in mid-October.
Arriving at Becky's as the gates open at 7:00 p.m., we pull the Infiniti into the sixth row, following the rules of the theater (just in case they consider the EX35 to be an SUV). Parked near the concession stands (where the projection booth is also located), we get the center-most position among the 400-plus spaces. On the first terraced level, we expect to get an unobstructed view of the movie.
Backing the EX35 into its space is easy with the Around View monitors. In addition to the regular back-up camera, Infiniti offers a virtual view around all sides of the vehicle compiled from a number of viewpoints. The animation is pretty good, but nothing like the movie we're about to see.
With our chairs unloaded and the screen-facing hatch of the Infiniti limited by a manager-provided length of twine (to prevent the door from rising above the roof line), we're ready for The Smurfs. We are introducing ourselves to the family from Catasaqua who have parked their minivan next door, when another family pulls an oversized SUV right in front of us.
The Trailblazer driver explains that he was told to park in "row six." Once he learns he is actually in row five, he kindly relocates the automotive equivalent of a woman's fancy hat to a more suitable (to us) location.
In order to secure such a great parking space, it was necessary to arrive two hours before dusk. Becky's knows that moviegoers will be onsite for up to six hours with children to entertain. To encourage the whole family's return, the place features a playground for the kids. If swings and see-saws aren't their cup of Ovaltine, try the inflatable bounce house and pony rides.
On the way back to the EX35, we pick up a freshly made funnel cake. The snack trailer offers strawberry toppings, but we decide that adding a nutritious garnish to our fried dough and powdered sugar treat would be sacrilegious. Over at the main refreshments stand, the kids get a commemorative bucket of popcorn and sno-cones. Traditional hot dogs and pizza appear on the menu alongside local favorites: pierogies, homemade turkey BBQ, and Alice's famous fries.
Back at the car, our portable radio with its fresh D-cell batteries comes to life. Tuned to 106.5, the little boom box starts off with a film montage set to "America the Beautiful" on screen two. As the vintage commercials for the snack bar and Pic mosquito repellent run, screen one sparks to life. We quickly re-tune the FM radio to 90.7 in order to watch and hear the same film shorts and commercials.
The prerequisite previews roll just after darkness falls on the wooded field, filling the kids' heads with more reasons to visit movie theaters during the coming months. A nearly new moon provides a wonderfully dark night to watch the film.
While the kids nestle into their seats, snacks and drinks at their side, I spread out inside the rear of the Infiniti. The animated Smurfs dance around the enormous screen as I get a moment to sum up my accommodations. Debating whether or not this truck-let is an SUV, a crossover, or simply a big car helps me from getting sucked into the Neil Patrick Harris movie. That is, until I decide I'm happy calling it a big hatchback (even though Infiniti will most definitely argue against the description).
There is plenty of space for me to spread out, prop my head up with a pile of towels, and enjoy another 1,000 calories (and untold amounts of trans fat) from the delicious funnel cake. Meanwhile, the kids crunch down on popcorn and happily slurp their root beer.
Little by little, I get company. One at a time, the kids abandon their chairs and snuggle up next to me in the back of the wagon. Just as the dramatic climax sums up the movie, I'm cozy with three little warm bodies, their blankets, and their giggles, while mom gets a little jealous she didn't think of it first.
The movie wraps up around 11. Now aware there's a second movie feature, the kids begin to make their arguments for staying to see Kevin James' latest opus, Zookeeper. With an hour and a half ride ahead of us, and another 90 or so minutes for the flick, we wouldn't roll into bed before 2:00 a.m. if we stay.
We pack up the car, say goodbye to the nice family from Catasaqua, and quietly make our way out of the theater before the talking animal movie starts.
Among my earliest memories is sitting in the back seat at a drive-in while my folks watch Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Over the years, I've attended a few more movies outside with my family or on dates. I can now say that taking the kids out on a beautiful summer night to watch a family-friendly film is the best way to go.
The number of drive-in theaters is dwindling. That core group of enthusiasts who continue to keep this American tradition alive need to be rewarded for their efforts. And rewarding them comes at the cost of a couple of movie tickets--for which you'll receive an experience unlike anything else. The fresh air, the big screen, the feeling of community, the closeness of family.... It all comes together in this one place: the drive-in theater.
Track down a drive-in near you, pack up the kids this weekend, and head out for your own cinematic tank-of-gas adventure!