Return to The Best Times Homepage

Memories

The way we were

Drive-in movies

I couldn't wait for nightfall.

When you can't tell time, it crawls more slowly forward than backward. My every-five-minutes question, "Is it time yet?," started to annoy the adults in the room, and my sense of survival soon overcame my intense anticipation. So I waited. And waited. And waited.

Finally! It was time to go to the movies!

Every summer Saturday, my family went to the drive-in. It was wonderful! The '50s cars filled with fins, chrome, and various models in a riot of colors, some two-toned. My dad was a Chevy man, so I was a Chevy girl. Cars meant drive-in movies.

So as darkness fell, we—my parents, my three younger sisters, and I—piled into our Chevy and headed to the drive-in on the hill. The summer heat began to subside. Dad paid a nominal amount, and the smell of popcorn floated into our open windows.

He drove slowly over the gravel hillocks in pursuit of the elusive Perfect Spot. I didn't understand what elements made it perfect, but I never doubted perfect's existence, either. When Dad found the spot, we held our breath as he man-handled the bulky speaker onto his window's lip, then turned the knob to "On." If it didn't work, that meant another search.

At last we found the other Perfect Spot. My parents and baby sister sat in front. We three girls perched our heads over the front bench seat.

Jaunty songs advertised soda pop, candy, and hot dogs with a cartoon man dancing in a popcorn box, trying to entice us to the concession stand. Dad performed refreshment duty, returning with popcorn, an orange soda split three ways, and colas for the adults only.

Some other families climbed onto their car hoods and relaxed against windshields. Others pulled out lawn chairs. And everywhere families and young couples spread picnic blankets for dining and reclining. Ours was a strictly in-car experience.

Suddenly, tension arose. I could feel it. Tension meant the movie was commencing, the evening's penultimate moment. Action flickered across the big screen, framed by the night sky. Cartoons were for kids, but Dad laughed, too.

At the drive-in we saw "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," "West Side Story," and a young Clint Eastwood in a cowboy film made in Italy. Apparently the United States didn't like Eastwood—yet. There were no G's, R's or X's back then, and music was integral to each film.

Too soon, intermission arrived— the break between features. When concession ads came onto the screen, that signaled our bedtime. Each back car well, blanketed softly, held one sister. And I stretched across the space beneath the rear window above the back seat, too excited to sleep, listening to the next feature well into the night.

Richard Hollingshead was just trying to sell more cars, I guess, when he invented the drive-in movie in 1933 and sold 25-cent tickets. And look at what he started. In 1958, about 3,500 movie theaters existed.

But the world changed around them, and the drive-ins didn't change. Now fewer than 500 drive-in movies exist. In the Kansas City area, only four are open. Johnson County has none, where it once had six. But drive-in movies are making a nostalgic comeback, catering to families with young kids and offering the most affordable prices.

Now drive-in movies offer an island of escape. They also offer an opportunity for entrepreneurs with small-business savvy. A number of drive-ins stay open year-round. In the late 1990s alone, nearly 100 drive-in movies, small to large, saw their grand openings or re-openings.

Maybe it's time to go to the movies!