Nolte: You Won’t Catch the Coronavirus at a Drive-In Movie

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Until there’s a vaccine, the coronavirus isn’t going anywhere, so what could be safer than seeing a movie at the drive-in from the confines of your own automobile?

Man alive, I miss the drive-in. I’ve missed the drive-in for going on 30 years.

I bet Hollywood’s missing the drive-in right about now. We could all be going to the new James Bond movie tonight.

Oh, that’s right, some of you don’t know what I’m talking about.

Believe it or not, between Memorial Day and Labor Day — at least up in the Midwest where winter happens — we used to watch movies from the comfort of our own cars.

I know that sounds crazy, but the truth is that it was crazy-awesome.

You’d drive to your local outdoor theater, pay a reasonable per-person or per-car admission, find a nice place to park in front of this gigantic outdoor screen, wait for dusk, and then watch at least two movies, sometimes three.

On the 4th of July, there would be fireworks between shows.

There was a playground for when the kids got restless; a concession stand. Best of all there was the oddly soothing sound of tires slowly crunching gravel as cars crept in and out coupled with the oddly soothing sound of the echo of the movie from everyone’s tinny speakers. And because you were in your own car, you could do whatever you wanted — smoke cigarettes, drink beer, eat your own snacks, neck, sleep, whatever…

I used to wrap hotdogs in aluminum foil and reheat them up on the engine block.

In the very early days, you parked next to a pole that held this big, clunky metal speaker. That was your sound. You would hang the speaker on your car window. It came with its own volume knob. Over time, the drive-ins installed FM radio stations. This allowed you to listen to the movies on your car stereo.

The FM sounded better, but I preferred the speaker. Change sucks.

Some people would bring lawn chairs and sit outside with a boom box. Others would back their pickups into the parking space and watch movies lying in the comfort of the truck bed. I enjoyed sitting on the hood of the car.

How in the world did all this lose favor? How did we go from thousands of drive-in theaters to just a few hundred? Imagine if there were still thousands of drive-ins right now. We could all go to the movies. Hollywood would still be making money.

Progress isn’t always progress, is it?

Sure, some of my reverie comes from sentiment and nostalgia. But not all of it. Hear me out…

Everyone complains about how awful it is to sit in a movie theater today. Everyone. Sticky floors, the price of concessions, the talking and other obnoxious noises. The drive-in solved all that… The theater was literally your own vehicle; you could bring in your own food, and if the sound of kids talking got annoying, your eyes didn’t even have to leave the screen as you reached into the backseat to give them a swat. Just ask my dad.

Oh, and unless you count romantic comedies, no plagues spread at the drive-in. You were hermetically sealed in your own environment.

Rain wasn’t an issue. You just turned on the wipers.

Actually, it was really nice when it rained.

From as soon as I could drive, straight through to getting married, and until we moved to North Carolina in the early 90s, if it was released in the summer, chances are better than not I saw it at the drive-in. We had no money in those days, so it was a perfect way to get out on a Friday night, see the latest releases at a reasonable price, and enjoy the weather.

In 1989, I saw Road House  at the drive-in.

I sat on the hood of a 1972 Buick Riviera, smoked Newports, ate hotdogs, and watched Road House.

This still counts as one of the most perfect experiences of my life.

Usually, after the first feature, the wife could crawl in the back and fall asleep under a blanket. So I’d sit there through the second and third features smoking, snacking, enjoying a beer or two out of a small cooler. We’d head home after it was all over, around 1 a.m., and it was always a perfect evening I never wanted to end. What could be better than watching movies outside in a Wisconsin summer night…

Oh, and back then, movies were still reliably good… Back then… Back then, when the world and I were still young,

It didn’t matter that we moved away. The drive-in was already dying. Within just a few years, all three of the outdoor theaters near our old place had been bulldozed. All three gone. One was replaced with a strip mall. You believe that? Someone paved over my past with a goddamned strip mall.

And that’s what happened all over the country. We paved over it all. We gave all that up. We let the drive-in go the way of the Betamax…

And for what, Surroundsound?

What the hell’s the matter with us?

The coronavirus has taken so much; maybe it can bring back the drive-in. We’ll be thinking more about crowds  and germs in the coming years, so it’s possible…

I would still be the first in line every Friday night. Me and my girl.

I don’t smoke cigarettes or drink beer anymore, but I’ve still never tasted a hotdog better than one reheated on an engine block.

Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC. Follow his Facebook Page here.


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