Dwindling Drive-Ins

My 6-year -old heart skipped a beat during the moment Leonardo DiCaprio appeared on the massive, outdoor screen. I grabbed a handful of Cheetos from the bag on my lap and stared at him in awe from the passenger’s seat of my parents’ 1986 Toyota Corolla. I was frozen with suspense the moment the glorious RMS Titanic began to sink, but there was no doubt in my mind that my beloved Leo would make it out alive.

But, as I later discovered, even the gorgeous Jack Dawson (DiCaprio) proved mortal against the colossal iceberg. My eyes filled with tears as he begged Rose (Kate Winslet) to “never let go.” I struggled to keep my tears at bay as she was forced to release him into the ocean after his death. I went home that night feeling a deep sense of melancholy.

Watching “Titanic” in 1997 is the earliest memory I have of a movie theater. But it wasn’t any average theater. It was a drive-in theater – probably the last one operating in the area at the time.

I remember arriving at the theater with my family. My dad was trying to figure out how to set up the sound so that it would transmit from the radio in the car while I waited impatiently. I anticipated watching “Titanic” for a long time and just wanted the movie to start!

I remember the show being a double feature. “Titanic,” as popular as it was, was predictably scheduled as the second movie. I have no recollection whatsoever of the first movie – only the feeling of restlessness because the film felt like it lasted an eternity. Once “Titanic” came on screen, I had no problem sitting through the three hour film.

Looking back on the experience, I only wish I had been old enough to appreciate what it meant to watch a movie at a drive-in theater. I wish that I had known I was living a unique experience that is now quite rare. I wish I could have appreciated the historical value. But the only thing I appreciated that night was the appearance of Leonardo DiCaprio.

During my freshman year of high school, I became obsessed with the pop-culture and lifestyles of the 1950s. The drive-in theater was an essential part of recreational activity during that time period. I constantly fantasized about traveling back in time and I tried to imagine what my life would have been like. One of my favorite daydreams was about sitting at the drive-in in a shiny, red hotrod, swooning over the gorgeous James Dean, just like I had over DiCaprio.

Unfortunately, the number of operating drive-in theaters has been in steady decline in recent decades. As of May 2009, there are fewer than 400 active drive-ins nationwide. This number pales in comparison to the 4,000 that existed during the 1950s-60s, the glory days of the drive-in. It greatly dismays me to know that I now have to drive for an hour to find the nearest drive in, when 50 years ago there were three just near my hometown.

Many former drive-in theatres have been converted to swap meets, such as the swap meet in my hometown. The enormous yellow, purple and green marquee still stands gloriously. As I walk around the many stands looking for goods, I can only imagine how many memories and good times stayed there. For those of us full of nostalgia, the drive-in theater was a bridge to the years long gone.