Monday, May 3, 2010

The Best Movie You Ever Saw at a Drive-in

Hot (and Cold) Favorites
The recent movie article in the New York Times (linked above), in honor of the upcoming kick-off of the summer movie season with this week's release of Iron Man 2, had some film insiders pick and discuss some of their favorites from past summers. This included, in their own words, memories from a screenwriter (Erin Cressida Wilson) and a couple of directors (James Mangold, Neil Jordan). However, the one recollection that really piqued my interest (enough to write a post about it) was the one written by the legendary independent filmmaker, George Romero. For him, the summer meant the 'drive-in.' That one really struck a chord with me. While growing up, the drive-in (as a venue) was my introduction to film as a child. The Bronx, where Romeo grew up, had only one drive-in (as he states, The Whitestone). But as he grew older, he got more opportunities to visit road-side cinemas:
"So, a few years later, I go off to college in Pittsburgh. At that time, in the ’50s, don’t ask me why, Pittsburgh had maybe more drive-ins than any American city except Los Angeles. I used to go a lot."
I don't know much about the Bronx, or Pittsburgh for that matter (outside of the Yankees and the Steelers, that is), but he was right about the number of drive-ins L.A. once had. I can't count the number of drive-ins I visited in the first 25 years of my life. But, there was a lot of them I was taken to as a kid (late 50's and 60's), and those I drove a date to in the 70's. Though the decline of the drive-in began during the mid-70's, I was still venturing out to all sorts of road theaters. This included the likes of The Centinela in Culver City (the location site of the famed drive-in shoot-out for Michael Mann's Heat) and The Winnetka in Chatsworth (significant because it was the last drive-in I ever took a date to).

All of those outdoor movie screens in the major L.A. area are now long gone -- sadly, demolished because the land was just too valuable (and keeping them running became too expensive for the theater owners). The properties were developed for other (more profitable) things. Although, you can still find some locally in the Los Angeles vicinity, on the outskirts -- and they are still supported by a loyal fan-base.
"I never saw a wonderful film at a drive-in (usually, they showed garbage, or scratched-up prints of movies you’d seen weeks ago downtown). Then, one day in 1968, some friends and I drove out to the Ardmore. It was showing a not-so-wonderful film that those same friends had helped me make: 'Night of the Living Dead.'”
I would have agree with the director's take, for the most part. Most people going to the drive-ins weren't seeking out great, artistic cinema (and owners booked only what was popular at the time to bring most people out). Usually, a trip to these venues was an affordable family night out, or teenagers looking for a cheap place to park so they could get a chance to fog up the car's windows. Heck, as teens I recall my friends  and I (and even my younger brother) would walk (no one had a car between us till later) the two miles to the local South Gate Drive-in. How do you walk to a drive-in, you ask? In this case, we didn't actually go into the drive-in. Behind the SGDI was the one of the many railroad tracks that cut through that city and served some of its industries there at the time (Firestone Rubber & Tire, General Motors, Schultz Steel, etc.). We'd walk down the tracks till we reached the rear of the drive-in (where we'd sit right on the rails) and watch the movie from a distance. And if we were real lucky, some car would be on the back row of the theater with their windows down and (if you listened hard enough) we'd actually get to hear some of the movie. Hey, I didn't say we were smart (or had jobs or money on us). But, this method did allow us to see some Rated-R flicks (remember, we're talking teens, here).

Despite that, the N.Y. Times piece did get me to think about my experiences at those venerable theaters. With George Romero relating his favorite summer film, I had to ask myself this: what was the best movie I ever saw at a drive-in? And it didn't take long with me to find the film, or the memory, to come up with an answer. June 17, 1972 at the Rosecrans Drive-in Theatre. I can call this to mind because it was the day after I graduated from South Gate High School. Having spent the entire previous night awake at Grad Night, I woke up late that afternoon and had to scramble to make my movie date (with the same girl I took to that all-night party at Disneyland). We sat in my old 1963 Ford Falcon station wagon and we actually watched the movie (and that's saying something for the film since I was a hormonal 17 at the time). While I did chose the drive-in as a venue because it was cheap and I had a girlfriend at the time, I picked the movie because I heard how good it was from my movie-going family members. What was the film? It was the  great 1972 film adaptation of the Mario Puzo novel, The Godfather by Francis Ford Coppola.

Now, what was the best film you ever saw at a drive-in?

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  1. My mom and dad used to pack us all into the back of the station wagon and head to the drive-in.  I think my first might have been Mary Poppins.  But the one I remember most was Live and Let Die, because we had to try it twice.  First time, I was charged with watching my little brother at the playground near the snack shack while parental unit bought said snacks.  Bad choice, as I didn't want the little guy to begin with (long story about him being a surprise and my folks not being able to afford both (1) a new baby and (2) our sailboat.  I lost the vote).  Long story short, through no fault of my own - other than a total lack of supervision, of course - he required stitches.  Strangely, I can't remember seeing any other movie at the drive-ins, though I know I saw many. 

  2. Welcome, Lauren. That's a great recollection... and totally understandable. I can see why it stands out. Thank you very much for noting it here, and for stopping by my friend.

  3. Pop Culture NerdMay 3, 2010 at 7:13 PM

    Aw, man, I can't play because I still haven't seen any! (Remember we had this discussion last summer?) Must. Rectify. Situation.

    I drove past one the other day on my way down to Orange County and wanted to stop but it was daylight and nothing was showing. Does that count? 

  4. I remember that discussion, PCN. Because you're heart is in the right place on this subject, we'll count it. Thanks, Elyse.

  5. Oh man, sweet topic! It's going to be very hard for me to pick just one! I have so many memories of the drive-in from high school. Admittedly, they are not all about the movies. ;) Instead of a specific movie I'm going to give a drive-in related memory. The town I lived in was along Hwy 50. At work one day a group of out of towners came in (small town, you could identify newbies very easily) and I started chatting with them and it turns out they were on a cross country trip visiting all the drive-ins along Hwy 50. I've never forgotten that and I thought it was such a great road trip theme.

  6. Whoa. That is one sweet memory, Rachel. With Hwy 50 running from coast-to-coast, that is one great road trip theme those out of towners had! I love it. Thanks for adding that memory to this.

  7.  Goldfinger really stands out. My job was to chaperone sis with her date, thats right 3 is a crowd but I got the front seat to myself. She was probably 16 so I was 10 and a real pain.
    The screen was right by the river and if you were lucky you got to see the whole movie before the fog covered it up.
    After seeing Bond for the first time I didn't shut up for a week.

  8. Sorry those are my Goldfinger remarks I forgot to log in.

  9. Kathleen A. RyanMay 4, 2010 at 5:02 AM

    Thanks for bringing up some good memories. My parents used to take my brother and sister and I in our station wagon, already dressed in our pajamas, to the drive-in theatre on Rt 110 in Melville. I don't even remember any of the movies we saw (I know my mom would remember), I just remember being in the car, my father adjusting the sound box, my parents going to get refreshments, and the car filled with pillows and blankets. 
    Although I do remember another drive-in theatre in Commack, which played "The Exorcist." I got to watch it from the deck of my friend's above-ground pool, which put us in line with the screen of the drive-in theater. Of course we had no sound, but we would peek at many movies this way. Unfortunately, I went with my older cousins to see the R-rated flick in a movie theater and it scared the hell out of me for years! I was about 12, and I was much too young to see that!
    Thanks for bringing up some old memories!

  10. That's a great drive-in memory, Herb (and a fun movie in Goldfinger). Thanks for contributing this, my friend.

  11. I'm beginning to think that there is an indirect causal effect here. So many of us have drive-in memories tied to that now rare model of car: the station wagon. They were everywhere in our youth, but now (like the drive-in) are few and far between. Those are obviously some fond memories, Kathleen. I'm very thankful you brought and shared them here.

  12. I can't remember any really good films at the drive-in: Willard, Little Big Man, Zachariah, The Libertine (not the Depp vehiclle, but something just as trashy), a couple of Connery's Bond movies I slept through. Nothing really outstanding. My favorite memory at the drive-in is, age 11 maybe, going with my BFF's large family, in her dad's station wagon, and he broke open fresh coconuts and we ate that instead of popcorn (which I've never liked).

  13. That's another great memory, Naomi. Fresh coconuts... I can see why it's unforgettable. And, another story that has a station wagon in it (them and drive-ins are forever linked). Thanks for this, Naomi.