Driving Into the Past

Driving Into the Past

There are certain signposts of bygone eras, markers of, at least we’d like to think, simpler, less complicated times. Such relics include: rotary-dial telephones, glass milk bottles delivered daily by a milk truck, wringer washing machines, television “rabbit ears” antenna, transistor radios.

An old, now-unused drive-in movie speaker, which in the past hung from a car window to supply sound, sits as a relic of older technology. (Photo by Mark Lombard)

My wife and I had a chance to find ourselves – well, actually, drive into – the past late this summer. Our “Twilight Zone” experience was done with our eyes wide open and caused us to feel the excitement of children when receiving something shiny new, even though it was worn, old, and had seen better days.

We didn’t enter another dimension, but rather crossed into the drive-in movie parking lot.

The drive-in movie dates back to just before the Depression in 1928 in New Jersey, and was patented in 1933. At its height of popularity in the late 50s, there were more than 4,000 outdoor theaters. Now, there are 368 such establishments and only 611 screens, according to the United Drive-In Theater Owners Association (yes, there is such an association).

When I share with friends that we went to see a movie at the drive-in, there are almost universal and immediate reactions: surprise, registered with a “Really?,” “Wow”  and/or “I didn’t know they still exist anywhere,” or words to that effect; and, then, accompanied with the softening of the facial muscles, the unfurrowing of the brow and a slight smile, followed by a remembrance of a time they may have gone to a drive-in, either as a child or decades ago with their kids.        

Not one of the dozens I told about going asked me what I saw – a perfectly dreadful flick, The Candidate with Will Ferrill. The reason: going to the drive-in was never really about what film was showing. For that, even decades ago, you’d go to the darkened theater, with the comfortable chairs, without talking to those next to you, on the big screen, in climate-controlled surroundings.

The drive-in snack bar of the Sunset Drive In in Colchester, VT, sells food that is advertised on screen before or between movies. (Photo by Mark Lombard)

No, the drive-in was about the experience of being there, of getting there early to use the swing sets often there to draw families before the movie started, of going to the snack bar after watching the on-screen advertisements for food, of children dressing in pajamas and having at hand their pillows (as they would be likely asleep before the first movie was over and certainly if there was a double feature). It was about talking to those in the cars next to yours, of laying on the hood (if your parents would let you), of applying mosquito repellant or lighting citronella candles, of marking summertime in a special way, of families together for a special outing or of couples on a date.

For my wife and myself, we did get there early and were, in fact, the only ones on the swings. We did go to the snack bar to get popcorn, candy and fries. We did examine closely the one remaining old speaker with wires that used to be hung on the car window (now, attendees set their car radio to a special frequency determined for each screen). We found the perfect place to park that gave us unobstructed view of the screen – not too close, not too far – and easy access to leave when the film ended.

I count myself as one who is grateful that this secular icon is still around to enjoy today and to remind me that some of those simple pleasures can help us step outside of the blur that is often our everyday life.

Another place you can go to get off the treadmill we often find ourselves and to take connect with new ideas for the road ahead, at the intersection of culture and spirituality, is Liberty + Vine, a new monthly digital magazine of Franciscan Media that goes where you go.

* * *

(Photo top: Screen #1 of the four-screen Sunset Drive In in Colchester, VT, in late August 2012 (Photo  by Mark Lombard).


About the Author

Mark Lombard, director of the product development division, has worked throughout his career in Catholic publishing. He is married, a father of two and a grandfather of two. Mark is an avid jazz lover, traveling with his wife to catch jazz performances throughout the East Coast.