Rediscovering cinema alfresco

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At the drive-in, no one can hear you scream. (At least, not if you keep your windows rolled up.)

That fact alone is enough to turn me into a convert. My husband and I are grateful for any public setting that will accommodate a small baby with a healthy set of lungs.

After years of predictions that drive-ins would go the way of whitewall tires and poodle skirts, Americans are rediscovering the pleasures of cinema alfresco.

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Three dozen drive-ins have reopened in the US since 1990, and 15 new ones are projecting Hollywood's latest offerings into the night air, according to Drive-ins.com. (This is a bit like reporting an uptick in the birthrate of manatees – a small increase, but a welcome one nonetheless.)

"Certainly, no one expects another heyday like the '50s," when more than 4,000 drive-ins dotted the landscape, says drive-in devotee Jennifer Sherer. But she and others believe the outlook is pretty healthy for the roughly 430 theaters left.

On a recent Friday at the Mendon Twin in Massachusetts, so many drivers lined up to plunk down their $15 a carload that the 800-car venue sold out.

And the lines of people at the snack bar waiting for freshly made Mexican food and raspberry lime rickeys stretched all the way outside the building and into the rows of cars.

When we pulled into our space an hour before the 8:35 p.m. start, a pregame show was in full swing – kids clad in pajamas and sneakers were tossing around footballs, frisbees, and the occasional younger sibling. (Try that in a cineplex lobby!)

Or try bringing grocery bags full of snacks from home, as did the folks in the maroon SUV next to us. These were clearly veterans: two Two kids sprawled on the vehicle's roof in sleeping bags, while the rest of the family relaxed in director's chairs, munching on Doritos and basking in the light of their citronella candle.

The six of them would have paid $94 at the local multiplex for a double feature, not including popcorn. And price – along with a hefty helping of nostalgia – is definitely a factor behind drive-ins' healthier glow, says Ms. Sherer of Drive-ins.com. "A lot of people realize it's a good entertainment value – especially if you have a lot of kids."

The value was, um, less clear in my case. The jalapeño poppers and root-beer floats tempted us to dig deep into our wallets. And we toodled home with our small one before the second feature. But an evening out of the house without having to call in a babysitter? That gets penciled in on my calendar – in neon.

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