As seen in


, a supplement to


Cars, movies, hot dogs: Our national obsessions
converge at the amazingly resilient drive-in,
now in the midst of a renaissance.

by Brett Leveridge

     A young mother plans an evening spent pitching Tupperware in her home to a dozen bouffant-coiffed, capri-pants-wearing women named Madge and Barb. To insure that everything goes smoothly, she sends her husband, with their four pajama-clad children in tow, off to the 14 Flags Drive-in on the south side of Oklahoma City, where the kids savor every minute of Captain Sinbad while Dad spends most of the evening trudging back and forth between the car and the concession stand.

     The TV Guide synopsis of some black-and-white sitcom you might come across on TV Land? No, it's an episode from my own life. Call it "My First Trip to the Drive-in: Love at First Sight."

     I attended drive-ins many more times throughout my childhood, continuing to take advantage of their low-priced admission and double features as I grew up. After years of city life without a car,i I took a cross-country trip in 1992 that renewed my enthusiasm for the drive-in experience. I watched the setting sun set the sky ablaze at St. Louis's since-razed 66 Park In theatre, a mammoth spot that first opened for business on Route 66 in 1948. At the Davis Drive-in in Ogden, Utah, I reclined on the hood of my rental car, torn between watching the movie or the monstrous electrical storm passing just north of town. I sat under a pitch-black sky, sprinkled with a million stars, in the wide-open spaces of rural Minnesota as Clint Eastwood gave into his darker urges at the climax of Unforgiven. I ate hot dogs with homemade chili, munched hot popcorn mere moments, not days, after it came out of a popper, and savored every moment of those ancient between-features promotional countdowns that urge moviegoers to make their way to the concession stand right away—because it's only ten minutes until showtime! As the man said, love is lovelier the second time around. And I was smitten but good.

     For a brief but glorious time, the entire U.S. of A. was in love with the drive-in. Naturally: Americans have always been just as crazy about cars as they are about going to the movies. And the only logical step to improve upon either was to bring them together.

     Alfresco viewing has been a part of the moviegoing experience since the days of the nickelodeon, but it took an enterprising New Jerseyan, Richard M. Hollingshead, Jr., to fashion a way to combine movies and automobiles. He launched the very first ozoner, the Camden Drive-in Theatre, on June 6, 1933, in Camden, New Jersey. "Ozoner was invented by a Variety headline writer in the fifties," says drive-in maven Joe Bob Briggs, explaining that the term was shorter for a space-starved editor than drive-in theatre or outdoor venue.

     From the beginning, theatre owners trumpeted the convenience and affordability of an evening at the drive-in: It was a decidedly uncasual era, so the allure of a "come as you are" moviegoing experience was tempting. Drive-ins also eliminated the need for a babysitter; patrons were urged to load the kids into the back seat and bring them along (they usually nodded off by the middle of the first feature). What's more, drive-in operators pitched the convenience of feeding one's family at the theatre. Concession stands offered more than the traditional snack bar fare of popcorn, soda. and candy. At the drive-in, you could enjoy a barbecued-beef sandwich, a hamburger, a hot dog, or any number of regional specialties. Drive-ins even helped break certain newfangled food fads: It was at their local ozoner that many Americans sampled their very first slice of pizza pie.

     Postwar affluence and the rise of the youth culture saw the popularity of drive-ins skyrocket in the 1950s. With the advent of the two-car family and the unprecedented mobility that development afforded teenagers, a certain segment of the Hollywood film industry, led by Samuel Z. Arkoff of American International Pictures, began to churn out assembly-line-style pictures. These were specifically marketed to adolescents: rock 'n' roll musicals like Don't Knock the Rock, exploitation masterpieces like High School Confidential, and schlock horror films like I was a Teenage Werewolf. Arkoff claimed that the braintrust at AIP made a practice of first coining a catchy title and then "crafting" a movie to fit it.

     Which was a wise, if mildly cynical, strategy: movies that could be enjoyed even when watched intermittently. After all, a good portion of that teenaged audience was probably, at any given point during the flick, otherwise occupied. Which to perhaps the most pervasive image associated with drive-ins: a place where guys on the make, too young to have a bachelor pad of their own yet old enough to drive, took their dates.

     And why not? After all, one might, on a dinner date, order oysters on the half shell with the purest of intentions, but you can bet your date will presume otherwise. Similarly, if you surprise her by spurning the Googoloplex in favor of an open-air evening at the drive-in, your date might be inclined to award you points for originality. It's an approach that is old enough to be new again, and fresh air and moonlight can be very effective aphrodisiacs.

     Seeing a movie from the privacy of your own car is easier now than it has been for years. Though they number well under 1,000 screens, drive-ins have experienced a resurgence in recent years after two decades of decline. Formerly shuttered ozoners are being refurbished and reopened. And in a development that seems almost miraculous, new drive-ins are being built (four new drive-ins have opened in Alabama alone in the past few years). The seedy atmosphere that afflicted many drive-ins in the 1970s, when business began to dramatically drop off and many operators turned in desperation to softcore porn, is now long forgotten. It's the original "bring the family" approach to marketing that has ozoning on the upswing.

     So whether you have fond, if faint, memories of long-ago evenings at the Skyvue drive-in or are a multiplex maven who's never considered enjoying a movie under a canopy of stars, it might be time to head for the drive-in. It's one American experience that has earned its classic status.

Ozone Layers: Each drive-in has its unique charms, but try parking yourself at one of these.

Shankweiler's Drive-in, Orefield, Pennsylvania: The granddaddy of them all. Shankweiler's was the second drive-in ever built (it opened in April of 1934) and is still going strong. It's a well-kept delight. In the early days, drive-ins had no in-window speakers or radio sound; they blasted the movie's soundtrack over a public address system. Look for Shankweiler's original (though no longer functional) speaker cone under the screen. (Route 309 and Shankweiler Road, Orefield, PA; 610-481-0800)

The Sky View Drive-in, Litchfield, Illinois: A triple treat of vanishing Americana. From this central Illinois town on Route 66, those enjoying a movie under the stars have their experience augmented by the occasional lonesome moan of freight trains rumbling by on the tracks that pass close by the theatre's property line. (North Route 66, Litchfield, IL; 217-324-4451)

The Movie Manor Motor Inn, Monte Vista, Colorado: A combination motel and drive-in, here you can watch a movie from your car or book a room and watch it on the big screen from the

comfort of your own bed. The Fairlee Motel & Drive-in Theater in Fairlee, Vermont, is a similar operation. (Movie Manor Motor Inn: 2830 West U.S. Highway 160, Monte Vista, CO; 800-771-9468; Fairlee Motel & Drive-in Theater: 1809 U.S. Route 5 North, Fairlee, VT; 802-333-9192)

Ford-Wyoming Drive-in Theatre, Dearborn, Michigan: In the summertime, it's hardly the best-kept drive-in you'll encounter. But check it out in the dead of winter: Even in the coldest months of Detroit's harshest season, five of the theatre's nine screens stay in operation on the weekends. They offer in-car heaters, but at only three of those five screens—so choose your movie carefully. (10400 Ford Road, Dearborn, MI; 313-846-6910)

The Winchester Drive-in, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma: A little ragged around the edges, true, but it's got a homey quality and one of the finest neon marquees you'll ever see: A giant cowboy, complete with handlebar mustache and Winchester rifle, gives a heart wave to all patrons as they enter and

leave the lot. (6930 S. Western, Oklahoma City, OK; 405-631-8851)

The Midway Drive-in, Ravenna, Ohio: One of the remaining ozoners designed and built by renowned drive-in architect Jack Vogel. His adventurous, space-age theatres conjure the heyday of the drive-in; the Midway is a lovingly restored example of his work. (State Route 59, Ravenna, OH; 330-296-9829)

Argo Drive-in Theatre, Argo, Alabama: On May 22, 1998, this 211-car theatre opened with a glorious screening of Titanic. It's a welcome addition to Alabama's recent drive-in renaissance. (Highway 11, Argo, AL; 205-467-3434)

Roosevelt Theater, Hyde Park, New York: If you're in New York City, make a day trip out of a visit to this great spot—and take a break from NYC's nearly $10-a-flick prices. Check out Franklin Delano Roosevelt's nearby estate, grab a bite at the world-famous Culinary Institute, and top it off with an evening at the Roosevelt. (Route 9, Hyde Park, NY: 914-229-2000)