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LIFE ON WHEELS

The Drive-In Lives, Even in Age of VCRs

June 08, 1989|JAN HOFMANN | Jan Hofmann is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

I spent four solid hours in my car the other Friday night without moving forward an inch, surrounded by a sea of other vehicles.

No, it was not one of those monster tie-ups you read about (or get stuck in) every month or so in Orange County. And although a few drivers honked now and then, nobody complained much about our situation. In fact, we all paid for the privilege. Except children under 12, of course. They got in free.

It wasn't the Costa Mesa Freeway. It was a drive-in movie.

You remember drive-ins. When you were little, Mom and Dad would take you there in your pajamas--the kind with feet--so you could conk out in the back of the station wagon halfway through the picture. It was kind of embarrassing when you went to the snack bar or the playground, but hey, what an adventure!

And when you were a few years older, the drive-in became a different kind of adventure. The movie didn't matter much (just as well, because it was probably either a couple of years old or some off-brand thing nobody ever heard of before or since).

But by the time the credits rolled, the windows would be steamed up, and you and your date would be considerably disheveled but happy.

Then. . . .

Perhaps it was the advent of the subcompact car, or the demise of those wide seats that were so comfortable at the drive-in. Could it have had something to do with the multiscreen indoor theaters that sprang up at every shopping mall? TV had to be a factor, as well as the invention of the videocassette.

Or maybe as we spent more and more time struggling through traffic, the idea of putting in extracurricular hours behind the wheel for any reason just lost its appeal.

Whatever the cause, fewer than 1,500 drive-in movie screens remain in the United States, down from a peak of more than 4,000 in 1958, according to Mary Ann Grasso, executive director of the National Assn. of Theater Owners.

Even as recently as 1980, there were more than 3,500 drive-in screens nationwide, she says.

California has 184 drive-in screens, Grasso says, the most of any state. The decline is even more apparent when you consider that in the '50s, drive-ins rarely had more than one screen. Today most drive-ins, such as the six in Orange County, have been converted to multiscreen setups.

But that decline may now be leveling off, says Alex Ben Block, editor-in-chief of Show Biz News, an entertainment industry publication.

"There has been a revival in some areas," Block says. "It's almost a nostalgia thing."

One New York entrepreneur missed the drive-in days so much last year that he tried to re-create the old ambiance with an indoor drive-in.

But nostalgia is not the only factor, Block says, because "drive-ins are also becoming popular again as discount theaters, especially in the South."

Bob Selig, president of the California chapter of the National Assn. of Theater Owners, says: "We get calls from all over the country saying, 'We understand that this is the end of the drive-in era, will you confirm it?' But in the Sun Belt states, where drive-ins can operate year-round, they're doing extremely well.

"We aren't building new ones--the land's too expensive now--but we're putting up more screens at existing drive-ins."

"Back in the '50s," Grasso says, "there was one car that was the family transportation, and whenever there was any excuse to get in the car and go somewhere, everybody went. A lot of people are too young to remember this, but back then people took car trips together as a family.

"You could go to the drive-in and stay in the car and have a night out as a family," she says. "But now, we have individual cars, Mom's car, Dad's car, young people have their own cars, and we just don't do that anymore."

Childhood memories do not always translate accurately into adulthood. "Cars were bigger then," she says. "We were littler."

Drive-in theaters, Block says, "have never been a great way to watch movies. And there's also the whole business of car batteries. Last time I went to a drive-in, they had those radio speakers, and I had to plug the thing into my cigarette lighter. It ruined the battery. I won't go back to one."

My own children had no drive-in memories before that Friday. The only other time I had taken them was in 1978--my son was 2, my daughter was an infant. We saw "Star Wars" for the first time that night.

So I wiped the windows of my microminivan, air-popped some cholesterol-free popcorn and drove off, pausing here and there to pick up other kids. Their incredulous mothers gave me that respectful look usually reserved for soldiers going off to war, as they handed their children some pocket money and waved goodby. Perhaps they noticed the small bottle on the dashboard: an aspirin-free pain reliever I had grabbed at the last minute, just in case.

By the time we arrived at the theater, my seven-passenger vehicle was filled to capacity.

For $15.50, they let all seven of us in--a bargain when you consider the price at many walk-in theaters just went up to $7 a head.

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