Growing up, it was a summertime ritual in my house. Most Fridays, my dad would come home from work, clean out his 1960-something Pontiac Laurentian, wedge a couple of wooden crates on the floor of the rear seats, place a twin mattress overtop and add pillows, blankets and sheets.
Meantime, my mother would be prodding me and my little brother to get washed and into our pyjamas before bundling us into the car.
We were off to the movies. The drive-in movies. Usually the 7&27 Drive-in or the 400 Drive-In just north of Toronto. I loved it. It didn’t matter what was playing, the movie was almost secondary to the thrill of it all.
First, there was the makeshift bed in the back. Now that was cool.
And we got to stay up past our bedtime. Bonus.
However, the best part was the playground. Yes, those childhood death traps located between the movie screen and the first row of cars. Nothing was more enticing than that giant multi-coloured metal circle built low to the ground that could be spun, on which dozens of little kids (most also in their pyjamas) would cling while the older kids circled its perimeter, whipping it faster and faster. Inevitably, the G-forces would send a few kids flying but most would happily hang on, dizzy with delight.
And, as the sun slowly set beyond the horizon, there would be a honk from an impatient movie-goer who figured it was dark enough to start the proceedings. Soon, there would be another. Then a third and eventually it would escalate into a raucous orchestra of car horns and flashing headlights. Finally, the projector would roll and hundreds of kids would race excitedly back to their car.
After all, you didn’t want to miss the pre-movie cartoon (usually Chilly Willy) nor the cheesy low-production animated commercial for the snack bar (Sing it with me: “Let’s all go to the lobby ...”).
The list: Five tidbits about drive-in theatres
Going to the drive-in used to be a ritual for families and teenagers on their first date. Some drive-in facts:
1. Richard M. Hollingshead opened the first drive-in in Camden, N.J., on June 6, 1933. It cost 25 cents per person and 25 cents per car to see Wives Beware, starring Adolphe Menjou.
2. The oldest North American drive-in still in business is Shankweiler's Drive-In Theatre. Located in Orefield, Penn., it has been lighting up the night sky with movies since April 15,1934. The current double feature: Spy Kids: All The Time In The World and Captain America: The First Avenger.
3. Canada's first drive-in – the Skyway Drive-In in Stoney Creek, Ont. – opened in 1946 and closed in 1975. Canada's oldest continuously operated drive-in – the Port Hope Drive-In, located (aptly) on Theatre Road – has been there since 1952.
4. The drive-in movie experience enjoyed its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, when there were more than 4,000 theatres operating in the United States and Canada. Today, there are 371 left stateside. Canada still has 66 drive-ins (25 of which are located in Ontario), according to drive-ins.com, down from 250.
5. All-Weather Drive-In (1957-1984), located on 28 acres in Copiague, N.Y., had parking for 2,500 cars plus an indoor 1,200-seat viewing area. The kid’s playground featured pony rides and there was a full-service restaurant and a shuttle train to ferry patrons back from the snack bar.
The sound was terrible from those tiny tinny speakers attached to the driver’s side window, the mosquitoes were nasty and, if you rolled up the windows to keep out the bugs, the front window would fog up. It was difficult to see over my parents’ shoulders from the back (I often stuck my head out the rear side window) and inevitably, I would go to war with my brother for control of the back seat. They never aired the movie you really wanted to see first and somewhere along the line, you realized your father was lifting you gently from the car to carry you to your bed.
The typical drive-in attracted a diverse audience – families, carloads of goofy high schoolers, stoned college kids flinging a Frisbee and young lovers – no matter what movie was playing. The human interaction from all the cars around you was often more entertaining than the flick.
In 1977, our family went to a drive-in to see The Deep. As Jacqueline Bisset swam underwater across the big screen clad in little more than a sheer white T-shirt, my mother and her 15-year-old son (no longer in pyjamas) both fidgeted uncomfortably, for entirely different reasons. It would be our last drive-in movie as a family.
But it would not be my last drive-in experience. I settled in nicely to my new role as a horny teenager and, in 1980 took a new girlfriend to see Friday the 13th, the first in the Jason slasher-movie franchise. Horror movies were good drive-in fodder, the theory being that girls were supposed to get scared and need some up-close comforting. I don’t think the movie frightened her at all but I do know that I don’t recall much of the plot.
In 1994, I tried to rekindle my love affair with the drive-in after many years of neglect. I took my wife Martha and our then-two-year-old son Josh to the Port Hope Drive-In to see True Lies and Airheads. I jury-rigged a makeshift bed in the back of our 1993 Ford Probe GT and Josh was resplendent in his pyjamas.
Upon arrival, I took my son by the hand and eagerly trotted him up to the playground. He was the only pyjama-clad kid there. Hell, he was the only kid. Period.
It was just me and him in the fun zone. We climbed aboard the antiquated and dilapidated spinning metal circle – and I gave it a few half-hearted spins. Josh didn’t like it much. Neither did I. We trundled back to the car. He went to sleep in the back. Of course, they screened Airheads first (some things never change) and I sat there disillusioned.
Then I had an epiphany. As Kevin Arnold said once on TV’s The Wonder Years, “Memory is a way of holding onto the things you love, the things you are, the things you never want to lose.”
Later, I pulled into the driveway, put the car in park and shut off the engine. Josh stirred ever so slightly as I lifted him gently from the car. I smiled. Life was good.
Correction: The 1960s vehicle mentioned in the first paragraph was incorrectly identified. It was a Pontiac Laurentian. The error has been corrected.