Longing For The Past? Drive-In Theaters Are The Answer
Designed for the future, drive-in movie theaters were emblematic of our advancement. Now, they're part of a nostalgic, wholesome genre everyone is seeking.
By Kyle Johnson
No Vacancy is a monthly column on often-overlooked aspects of the American life. While roadside hotels and remote estate sales may not be the flashy parts of modern life, they are inextricable from American culture.
No one from Muskegon, Michigan would ever call their city a “summer town.” It just happens to be very nice from June to August. Located on the shores of Lake Michigan, the former lumber capital of the world boasts some of the best beaches in all of the United States. Sun seekers from all over the midwest flock to Pere Marquette beach to enjoy the perfect sand and the crisp, unsalted waters. There is even a sprawling beachside restaurant compound made up of “chic” cargo containers where every weekend a horde descends to eat mediocre barbecue and listen to Bon Jovi cover bands. If you were to envisage Lake Michigan as a mouth, this enterprise would be the scabrous cold sore on the bottom shore.
This enmity exists only because people are going to the wrong summer offering in Muskegon: there is a drive-in movie theater! Tourists are busy sloshing their High Noons, singing along to Reaganomic pop songs, when they could be getting two movies for the price of one. In this economy! The Getty Drive-In is an 80 year-old institution that shows double features from spring to fall. The theater belongs to the Celebration Cinemas family, a movie theater company that owns 11 theaters around west and central Michigan. The joint may be old school but they play almost all new movies. While they missed “Barbenheimer” as a double feature, where else in the world can you see the 34th “Insidious” movie followed by a palette cleansing rom-com? At the Getty Drive-In you can.
When the last rays of sun dip below the watery horizon, seven miles away a line of cars is already forming to gain entrance to the theater. The line sometimes grows so long the teenage theater staff are deputized as traffic cops, waving and whistling at cars in a complex ritual of admittance. When you are beyond the ticket booth, your friends can get out below the tarp in the trunk, and your party of “one” can proceed to one of the four screens. Each screen has a dozen rows of grass and gravel for parking your car. Spaces are indicated by short metal poles that, in the halcyon days of yore, housed the speakers guests would attach to their windows to hear the movie. These days each screen has a designated radio station you tune into.
Once you have creeped into your spot you can either sit in the car and make out with Suzie Q or you can set up camp outside with a boombox and lawn chairs. The one time pickup trucks are ever to be forgiven is at the drive-ins. They are the optimal drive-in vehicle. A good friend of mine likes to create a nest in the bed with ample quilts, concession stand hot dogs, and a six-pack. Once settled, you are ready to bask in the projected glow of the screen. You are ready to experience movie magic.
When Nicole Kidman says, in her best performance for this AMC ad, “Stories feel perfect and powerful. Because here, they are.” Now we all know this was just a ploy from the AMC executives to push people into theaters after the pandemic slump, but this Aussie is on to something. Nicole suggests that movie theaters are the super-ego form of movie viewing. I suggest the drive-ins are the glorious id. Seeing a double-feature at a drive-in is, to me, the funnest way to see the blockbusters. Most multiplex movies coming out these days are not what you’d call “high-art”, so why not see them in the funnest possible fashion?
While there are rules, you can create an experience distinct from your normal indoor theater outing: blow fat clouds from your vape, bring your geriatric dog to yip all movie long, you could even clandestinely conceive a child. Imagine telling your kid they were created in no small part because of the plodding plot of “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts.” That is the power of movies! If you can take your eyes away from the screen and observe the real scene around you, it feels like you are privy to a world that should not exist in 2023. It feels too wholesome. Family and friends are gathered, smiling in the lowly lit night as they leave the concession stand to enjoy a summer evening.
It has that pure, good timey feeling that you thought could only exist in childhood or within a movie itself. Being at the drive-in instills that ineffable feeling of summertime joy. It has a certain nostalgia. Nostalgia can be a dangerous path. The reason there are so many sequels, prequels, and remakes in the movie industry today is in part due to nostalgia. Since we are seemingly unable to create a prosperous future, we have to loan that energy and resources to the things that made us feel good all those years ago. Regardless of the state of cinema, the drive-in exists for you to have fun. I have found that no matter what movies you see there, it is always a memorable and jolly night.
So if you live anywhere near the 300 still operating drive-in theaters, take the double-feature trip. If you do not live near one and have a backyard, buy a cheap projector and cast some movies onto a sheet nailed to your fence. Invite your friends and neighbors over for your own double feature.