Old Drive-ins should never die

The very best vehicle to take to a drive-in movie is a mid-80s Dodge Ramcharger.

That is not really a random thought, some chicken scratching its way across my brain. Honda in the U.S. has started a campaign to save the drive-in theatres. Over the coming year, more and more of them will be going dark as Hollywood ceases to provide them with the classic movie form: film reels. It’s become go digital or go home, literally. At a cost of about $100,000 per location in Canada for the change (about $75,000 in the States), it will sound the death knell for a pastime that’s already all but gone.

But it shouldn’t be. There’s a reported 368 drive-ins still open in the U.S. though trying to nail down a Canadian estimate is like playing whack-a-mole. Glances at the most official looking websites charting such things reveal numbers from 39 to 53, as more are shuttered seemingly overnight; every site has a blazing tag to call the theatre first.

I can say in all honesty I’ve never made it awake through a long weekend quadruple feature. That never stopped me from loving them. As a teenager, it was the closest thing to corralled freedom you could get. My parents knew where I was, I could bust curfew because it was a special event, and half the time, there were 6 carloads of kids all going together.

In the early years, the clunky speaker box that had to sit atop the driver’s window meant cold air seeping in as temperatures dipped. Cars would be started up periodically to warm the occupants, unless the occupants were taking care of it themselves.

Then things got really modern and you hooked the cable to your antenna and played the sound through your radio. The beauty of this was no cold air seeping in, but the downside was a field full of cars with dead batteries at the end. My father used to tell us we couldn’t use his cars for this reason, so we lied and said we only used the clunky speakers and paid someone five bucks for a boost at the end of the night. There were guys who made good money doing this.

I learned about drive-in romance tucked into the back seat of a station wagon in my pyjamas. Spilling popcorn on sleeping bags shared with my younger sister as we took turns yelling that we couldn’t hear it, it finally dawned on us that our older sister in the front seat with her boyfriend had been quiet for far too long. We had been the excuse for using the car that night; she failed to realize that we wouldn’t fall asleep nearly as soon as she’d hoped.

I learned that scary movies weren’t as scary at the drive-in. The staple of all teenage viewing – slasher flicks – were bearable from the confines of a car. It was excellent fare for all the highschoolers in attendance; movies that reinforced the idea that having sex meant you would be the next to die.

The perfect drive-in car was a subject much debated. Bucket seats were terrible, as was a floor mounted stick shift. One friend had a big old Mercury that held 6 kids in the trunk; yes, we did this, forgetting that once we got out we had to sit somewhere. Cramming 8 teenagers across 2 bench seats was fun, if not horribly romantic. I came to appreciate theatre owners who simply started charging by the carload; you simply could not overestimate the thriftiness of kids who earned $2.45 an hour.

We’d roll our eyes knowingly at windowless vans that headed for the back row. The tiny MGs and other convertibles looked inviting until it started to rain or get cold, and you prayed on a double date you didn’t get trapped in the back of one of the two-door Mavericks or Novas or Gremlins. Style was someone’s LTD or Cadillac – or, more specifically, someone’s Dad’s.

I discovered the best beast, however, by accident. When a friend couldn’t drive, I begged my father for a last minute replacement – his beloved Ramcharger. Huge, stripped down for hauling junk only he found valuable, and notoriously unreliable in the rain, I loved that truck. We filled it with pillows and blankets and food and friends, and headed to the (sadly gone) Clappison’s Corners drive-in. Through some trial and error, I positioned it on the grassy incline with the rear facing the screen. Flipping up the back window yet leaving the tailgate up, we discovered the best vantage point, ever.

I don’t get nostalgic for much, but I’m thinking it’s time to start including drive-ins on my travels. Wonder if Dodge has anything that will serve like that old Ramcharger.

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6 responses to Old Drive-ins should never die

  1. Pat says:

    Used to love to go to the 5 drive-in in Oakville, on 9th line. It’s still there I think, but the city lights are so bright, the drive-in experience is doomed. Add the digital update and the price of real estate, poof.
    Fav drive-in was in Sudbury, huge screen, remember seeing Spartacus as a boy, wow!

  2. Bill says:

    I grew up about a mile south of the ‘Skylark Drive In’ just outside of Courtland Ont. When I was about 12 or 13 yrs. old, my cousin and I would sneak in through the corn field at the back and climb the fence. Well, the people at the concession stand worked the entrance gate as well and knew we hadn’t arrived in a car (or trunk) (common method). After being ‘caught ?th time they told us to just walk in through the entrance gate so that they knew we were there. They just didn’t want us near the back where we might see god knows what!
    Small place 1960′s can’t be any better.
    The drive-in closed years ago. Times change.

  3. Sandy says:

    Went to the Starlite just a few years ago. It was so fun.
    My sister and I would hide in the storage well in the back of our station wagon to get in free.
    I remember doing a all nighter on a long weekend one year with my dads’ station wagon. One of the movies was Revenge of the Nerds, and we were driving the same car. Two of us, in this massive wagon.
    So many good times. I keep saying that I’m going to take my kids, they have no idea what they’ve missed.

  4. David Craig says:

    While on vacation in the Wasaga Beach area we visit both the Midland and Barrie Sunset drive-ins. Typically during a two week vacation we see 6 or 8 movies. It is a lot of fun.

    The Elmvale drive-in was the closest one to Wasaga but it closed recently because of the switch to digital projection. That’s a shame. We used to frequent it a lot.

  5. Mitch says:

    One of the very best cars to see a movie at a Drive-In was my 1955 Chevrolet One-Fifty, four door sedan with full size bench seats front and back. Two girls and your best friend…not much more needed to say about that. There were two drive-ins with in an easy drive where I grew up, one near Duncan and Nanaimo, both now long gone. But not the memories.

  6. ALLAN BARNES says:

    DRIVE IN THEATRES RULE – TRY CARLOAD NIGHT at the STARLITE in GRAND BEND

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