By Sarah Sluis
In the age of Netflix, on-demand, and Hulu, many people watch movies the way they watch TV: indifferently. But going to the movies can be a special, magical experience. Forget 3D and IMAX. Think al fresco. Film Journal's summer intern, Kathleen O'Donnell, reminisces about her experiences, past and present, at the drive-in.
Entrance to Mahoning Drive-in in Lehighton, Pennsylvania.
Going to the movies is a special treat. The darkness, the cool air, the smell of popcorn - all of your senses become alert and ready for an escape, a journey. What could be better than that? Well, how about packing your car with blankets, pillows, and a Holy Grail of snacks for a true movie adventure, one that doesn't take place in a theatre seat, but in the great outdoors.
Growing up in Northeast Pennsylvania, I was afforded what most city dwellers consider a luxury: the drive-in. Within about a half hour's drive from my childhood home, there are four currently-operating drive-in theatres: Mahoning Valley in Lehighton, PA; Becky's in Berlinsville; PA, Laurel in Hazleton, PA; and Shankweiler's in Orwigsburg, PA.
Shankweiler's opened in 1934 and holds the honor of being the country's oldest drive-in that's still in operation. By 1944, Pennsylvania had 50 drive-in theatres. By 1960, the number rose to 180. Despite the dramatic decline in drive-in popularity throughout the '70s and '80s, Pennsylvania remains one of the top five drive-in states, with 35 operating theatres.
Films such as Grease and The Outsiders immortalized the vintage drive-in experience for audiences all over the U.S. But as a kid of the '90s, going to the drive-in was not about hot dates and sneaking through the fences but family time and the chance to stay up late. The other stuff was for big kids, anyway.
My parents, brother, sister and I would go to the drive-in in our family's giant blue Astro van. We would spin the seats around and set up our spread of comforters and coolers. Usually, there was time for a good game of catch or Frisbee before the sun went down and a classic like Toy Story went up on the giant white screen. I specifically remember being a really confused seven-year-old watching Small Soldiers at the drive-in. If this was a movie about toys, where were Woody and Buzz?
Once I was in high school, I started going to drive-in theatres as soon as the weather turned warm. Each year, as I divided my summer vacation between working at local museums and swimming at the pool down the road, I always managed to get permission for a couple of drive-in nights. Usually, that meant my big sis was driving and we could stay out until the second feature had ended. Score!
About a year ago, while visiting high school friends back home, we were desperate for something to do in the evening. In small town USA, there's little besides bowling and movies. We opted for both, getting to the drive-in about halfway through the first feature, Toy Story 3. After all these years, I found Woody and Buzz at the drive-in again.
Since then, I've lived in New York City for almost two years. I suppose it could be hard to say that going home has something better to offer than the Big Apple, but it certainly does: First, my loving family. Second, the drive-in. This summer, the fever set in once again. How could I miss out on experiencing the final Harry Potter flick at the drive-in? I gathered my best friends, borrowed my parents' blue SUV (swapped for the Astro van), and cruised to my favorite summer getaway. If I had to sum up the drive-in experience with one word, it's this: bliss.
See the photos from my most recent drive-in adventure below!
My friendsplaying games,dwarfedby the screen.
Testaments to the long historyof the drive-in: a Simplex projector and a vintagerefreshment sign.