In the absence of theaters, drive-ins offer a nostalgic option

July 27, 2020 | G. Michael Dobbs

With COVID-19 greatly interrupting so many aspects of American life, it may seem trivial to write this statement: I miss going to theaters to see movies.

Now even when movie theaters reopen under safety precautions, I’m not sure I will be going. About the only theaters I know I could go to safely would be drive-ins.

Believe or not drive-ins are making a little bit of a comeback in 2020. There are a few left and those are reportedly seeing an upswing in attendance.

At my tender age, I have two sets of memories about drive-ins – some from childhood and some from being a teen and young adult. They were all about being socially distant before there was such a thing.

Our area was awash with drive-ins. There was the Airline in Chicopee – where BJ and the Big Y are now located. In Wilbraham there was the Parkway – where Home Depot is located. There was the Red Rock in Southampton and two drive-ins in West Springfield: the Riverdale (where Home Depot and Table and Vine are located) – and the Memorial on Memorial Drive. There was also a drive-in in Hadley, the name of which escapes me.

I’m sure I’m probably missing a few.

Many years ago I had the pleasure of interviewing David Friedman, an independent producer of exploitation films. He named every drive-in in the greater Springfield area where he booked his films 20 years after the drive-ins closed. They were that significant a part of the movie business.

Drive-ins seemed to be the perfect complement to the car culture of the 1950s and 60s as well as the rise of suburbia and the Baby Boom. It was all part of “living in your car” phenomena that manifested itself at the time.

My earliest memory of seeing a movie was the film “Tom Thumb,” released in 1958 when I was four. My mom, dad and brother, who was just one-year-old, went to the Airline in Chicopee. Mom had given us a bath and put us in our pajamas, as she knew we couldn’t manage stay awake that long.

As predicted I fell asleep and I distinctly recall my father saying to Mom, “The kid’s asleep. Can we go now?”

The next year we all went to see a bill with The Three Stooges in “Have Rocket Will Travel.” My grandmother Maude was with us and the notable event was my whining for some hot chocolate from the concession stand only to spill it on my mom.

One of the charms of the drive-in experience was the concession stand, which typically sold far more than the candy, popcorn and soda of “hardtop” theaters – as Variety, the bible of show business, would call conventional theaters. Those stands even sold a new exotic item called “pizza.”

They also sold something called “Pic,” which was pesticide incense you lit up to keep mosquitoes away from you in the car.

By the time I reached my teen years and had my license, I was thoroughly in love with movies and itching to go to the drive-in for a dawn-to-dusk show or for some triple feature. The ads in the newspapers for these shows listed films that sounded intriguing to say the least.

Drive-ins in many cases were owned by people, not huge corporations, and they were the last vestige of old-fashioned ballyhoo and promotion. Drive-owners did a lot to lure people to their outdoor theaters, from building playgrounds for kid to replacing the clunky personal speakers to broadcasting the soundtrack over AM radio.

Being a farm boy though meant that a dusk-to-dawn show was not something I could do. And when I started dating in my senior year of high school, there was a prohibition placed by the father of my girlfriend on dates at drive-ins.

The VCR killed the drive-in. One of the advantages of the drive-in was the ticketing price. Many had a car-load fee, which was economical to families. That deal was beat by the cost of renting a couple of videos.

Here we are, though, in the midst of the pandemic and suddenly the format of the drive-in makes a lot of sense. Now the question to ask myself is if I’m told old to stay awake through a triple feature, if I can find one.

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