Largely associated with the cinder block and milk crate set and families expert in child mass-production, the drive-in movie theater really is about a piece of 20th-century Americana that is quickly dissolving. Many drive-ins of yore are now Kmarts, apartment complexes and even trailer parks.
Conceived by an entrepreneur named Richard M. Hollingshead Jr., the first drive-in opened on June 6, 1933, in Camden, New Jersey. By 1948, 820 outdoor theaters were up and running. Post-World War II confidence fueled a growth spurt that peaked in 1958 and saw more than 5,000 of the outdoor venues in full operation.
Between 1977 and 1987, cable TV and the home VCR decimated the industry, and the number of drive-ins dwindled from 4,000 to 999. Currently there are fewer than 600 in operation around the country.
And in the Valley, which boasted 13 drive-ins in 1955, now there are two; Arizona has a total of six.
Pulling in to the gravel lot just off 55th Avenue and Bethany Home, we come to the fluorescent marquee of the Glendale 9 Drive-in Theater. A bow of nine free-standing ticket-taking huts blocking the entrance to the grounds resembles an eerie graveyard for dilapidated highway tollbooths.
All of the booths are dark except for one that is handling all of tonight's incoming traffic for the nine screens. We pay (Tuesday night is family night: $3 per person) and move toward our designated screen. We come to a series of small dirt ramps arranged in a semicircle around the screen, park and tune in to the FM frequency that broadcasts the shows. It's disorienting to listen to dialogue coming through the radio while staring at the darkened and blurry images on the screen; the two just don't connect somehow.
The stars and the sky are a kind of warm and comforting companion to the outdoor-movie experience. The drive-in provides a chance for us to become one with nature--a nature that is surrounded by industrial spaces, Circle Ks and distant headlights moving with the soft hum of their engines, a nature that floats in hot, humid air with essences of car oil, rubber and dust in a light breeze. The scene is completely interrupted whenever a jet roars overhead.
Tonight, the Wesley Snipes vehicle Blade plays host to a colorful mix of viewers: lots of white, black and brown-skinned folks, a real cross-cultural demographic; the real America. A yellow-striped kitten bounces around the sparse collection of mostly older model cars. There is a Mercury Cougar up on blocks. Why is there a car up on blocks here?
When the movie begins, and its unbelievably violent and trite arc unfolds, I wonder about all the kids here watching this. Toddlers even. The last thing a child needs is a Wesley Snipes movie, especially one in which a vampire couple devours a man's neck, then French kisses with its bloody bits. What happened to parenting? And why is this film okay for kids at a drive-in, and erotica not?
Time for the snack bar. The round room at the bottom half of the screening tower sports a station-type refreshment counter. The place is deserted and forlorn, appropriate for a business just barely limping along. The place is well-lighted and the air is stale with the aroma of the nearby men's room. In the center of the snack area, a boy plays emotionless amongst a dozen or so video games, fortunate at least to miss the carnage onscreen. Many of the shelves in the display racks are empty of food items. The yellowy popcorn appears as if it came from one of those giant bags of prepopped fluff. Boxes of candy look untouched since Star Wars. Hot dogs sit wrapped under a glowing red lamp. Why are the hot dogs prewrapped? To hide some horrible truth?
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"Is the pizza good?" I ask the tattooed woman behind the counter.
"Yeah, it's great," she says through a gap-toothed grin.
"The 16-inch, then, with olives."
I pay, leave and return 15 minutes later to retrieve my pizza. Back at the car, we dig in. Awful. No rewards there. The uneaten pie finds a home in the trash can next to the car.
Then the movie ends in a mess of kung-fu movie references.
We agree the night heat wins and decide to bail, but not before the antique intermission clip rolls, featuring strangely surreal and humanized food, a clip that exemplifies the limits of the erotica one can expect without an NC-17 or XXX rating: A very testosteronish hot dog leaps into an obviously feminine bun. The drive-in may be well beyond the McCarthy era, but not its mores.