Josna Rege

186. Drive-ins

In 1970s, 1980s, Family, Immigration, United States on April 4, 2013 at 12:01 am
Wellfleet Drive-In (

Wellfleet Drive-In (

Drive-in movie theaters are quintessentially American. It’s sad how many of them have gone out of business, their battered screens staked out in overgrown fields or deserted parking lots with waist-high weeds cracking through the concrete, and memories of 1950s automobiles with the parents up front munching down butter-drenched popcorn and the teenagers stealing kisses in the back seats.

My first experience of one of these American institutions was in the early 1970s during one of our very first summers in the United States at the Wellfleet Drive-In on Cape Cod, which has been in operation since 1957. We ventured out one evening in our still-new Plymouth Valiant and inched our way down the unfamiliar rows in the gathering dusk, lining ourselves up with one of those strange parking-meter-like sound stations. I still remember the movie playing that night—Mary Poppins, for which I couldn’t properly suspend my disbelief because of Dick Van Dyke’s disastrous attempt at a Cockney accent, so bad that it was embarrassing. (I loved Dick Van Dyke, especially with Mary Tyler Moore in The Dick Van Dyke Show, but really, he was ridiculous in this role, despite his always-brilliant dancing on those long, gangly legs of his.) As a recent immigrant, I don’t think I was able to fully appreciate the ambiance; it was all too new and strange.



In the mid-1980s, when we were young parents living in the wilds of Winchendon, one of our favorite outings on hot Saturday nights was to Gardner to the (sadly, now-defunct) Mohawk Drive-In, especially the “dusk-to-dawn” extravaganzas bookending the summer on Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends. Not that we were capable of staying up all night, especially as young parents. The first movie was the family show, full of toddlers whose parents took them to brush all the candy out of their teeth and change into their PJ’s during the intermission. Sometimes the little ones fell blessedly asleep, and the adults could stay on with them through the second movie. But most of the family crowd left  after the second show, and the night was taken over by the teenagers. Only the most intrepid of us oldsters would stick around for the third show. To the accompaniment of horror and zombie movies the teens would drink, carouse, and run amok, lighting fires in garbage cans and generally behaving badly until the police arrived to clear the place out.  I remember staying only once for a third movie, the nightmare-inducing Children of the Corn (1984)—well maybe a second time, for Pink Floyd’s The Wall—but Maureen and I tended to be preoccupied with the babies, and paid only intermittent attention to the strange scenes on the flickering screen. Sometimes we would leave early and the guys, diehard and indiscriminate movie fans that they were, would stay on until the bitter end or until the police arrived, whichever came first. Eventually they shut down that drive-in for good. and now it has been replaced by a housing development.

Northfield Drive-In (by Amy Brady,

Northfield Drive-In (by Amy Brady,

Although most of the old drive-in movie theaters have been closed, fortunately there is still one left in the area, The Northfield Drive-In, dating all the way back to 1948. Throughout middle and high school, Nikhil’s summer was never complete without at least a couple of outings to Northfield, where we would meet a gang of the old friends with whom we used to go to the old Mohawk Drive-In. We would take deck chairs, blankets, picnics, and snacks a-plenty, set them up right in front, and then settle in for the long haul. I haven’t managed to get myself out to it for years, but perhaps next Memorial Day weekend it will be time to partake once again of this great American experience.

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  1. What nice details to remind us of a fading piece of history.

    • Thank you for visiting and for your kind comment. Perhaps it is my age, but I seem to be feeling acutely aware of the things we are losing as technology changes so rapidly.(No doubt younger generations will feel just as deeply about new social and cultural forms, but I’ll leave it to them to rhapsodize about the joys of Google+ hangouts or flirting with their boyfriends via SMS!) I’ve just visited and read a few posts on your blog and like your voice and your distinctive sense of humor. Looking forward to reading more of it. J

  2. I remember those drive in trips, hoping the kids would fall asleep. There is still a drive in somewhere around here in Atlanta. My daughter tells me they now tune in to a station instead of using the parking meter things.

    • Oh yes, come to think of it I think our nearest remaining drive-in has people tune in via their radios–I had forgotten (it’s been a while!). It feels good to know that our generation shares these memories–and that the next generation is experiencing them too.

  3. This is awesome. Great descriptors. Unfortunately, I’ve never had the pleasure of going to a drive-in. The only drive-in I remember being even remotely close to me showed X-rated films. During the spring, summer, and early fall the thicket of trees concealed the screen, but during the winter months they would put up another screen to conceal.

    My church during the spring, summer, and early fall months does a drive-in type thing. It’s really neat. The closet thing to a drive-in that we have is Screen on the Green every summer and they even shortened the length of that and at one point even tried to get rid of it.

    • Thank so much for your comment. I like the sound of your Screen on the Green–love watching movies out of doors. We used to have something similar on our town common called Hot Summer Nights, which was a lot of fun and was something to look forward on Wednesday evenings in the summer–a real family scene, with blankets spread out on the grass and picnics and visiting with friends. But they canceled it when teenagers started attending (and why shouldn’t they?) and occasionally getting a little high-spirited.

  4. I so remember being entranced by those speakers as well. The walks to the concession stands also stand out. It was an experience indeed. Stratoz goes AtoZ

    • Yes, as you describe the walk to the concession stand, imagining the scene invokes it all, a cross between a sleepover party and a fairground. And yet families are sitting together watching as if they were at home in front of their TVs. No wonder the youth break loose once the parents take the little ones to bed! Thanks for commenting. J

  5. My friends and I just went to a drive-in the Saturday after the fourth of July. It was about an hour from where I live, and they were holding a three-movie special, as well as a fireworks show. Ashamedly, though I am 21, I had never really been to a drive-in before, though I had a solid idea of what they were like. It was a great experience, and I had a lot of fun with my friends. It’s something I’d love to more often… it’s just a shame there are not many nearby.

    The one we went to was having a fundraiser, so they could buy a digital projector (because most movies are just coming out in digital now-a-days, so they needed one to continue operating). They announced when we were there that they had broken a record for the most people in attendance at their drive-in — a record previously set some time in the 1950s. So who knows! Maybe there is some hope for them yet.

    Great piece! You really capture the atmosphere of an old drive-in.

    • So glad you had the full “dusk-to-dawn” drive-in experience—and wow, fireworks, too!—and also contributed to its survival in the digital age. Maybe they’ll start making a comeback; I feel that anything that promotes togetherness and community is likely to gain popularity as people feel increasingly isolated. And thanks so much for commenting.

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