Drive-In Movies: Featuring Families

Gone are the days of drive-ins as 'passion pits' for teenagers. Today, mom, dad, and the kids are fueling a revival of these starlit American icons.

The drive-in movie theater, a summer paradise once on the path to oblivion, is being rediscovered by families looking for an affordable night together, drawn by novelty and nostalgia. The days of being "passion pits" for teen romances or dens of promiscuous adult movies have mostly gone by the boards.

On a recent Friday night, there was no doubting the popularity of the Mendon Twin Drive-In here, or the family clientele.

As the sun sets and show time approaches, a parade of cars loaded with moms, dads, and children line up at a pair of drive-through ticket windows tucked into the woods off Route 16. Customers pay $13 a carload, receive a lengthy concessions menu and a small trash bag, then search out a vacant parking spot.

Vans, station wagons, and sport utes are parked backward and rear doors flung open so kids can get an unobstructed view of the Disney double feature on Screen 1: "Mulan" and "The Parent Trap."

"Watching movies is one of our favorite family pastimes," says Barb Foisy, who with her husband, Ron, from Hopkinton, Mass., entertain their two young children with a winged foam football. "Coming to the drive-in is a way we can all have a fun night out together doing something we enjoy."

Joe Blanchet, a newspaper delivery-truck driver, travels 40 miles to arrive more than a hour before showtime with his wife and eight-year-old son. "We call ahead to place an order at a local sub shop," Mr. Blanchet says, as he and son Marc play baseball and wait for nightfall.

Before the first features begin and an old-time "Good Evening Folks" clip rolls, it seems as if everyone crowds into the oven-hot snack bar selling tubs of buttered popcorn and sizzling burgers.

Counting a cultural icon

It's a scene being replicated at drive-ins around the United States, as well as some places in Canada, Europe, and Australia.

The number of US drive-in theaters has dropped dramatically from 4,000 in 1958 to roughly 530 today. The latter figure "is holding and holding pretty strong," says Don Sanders, a Dallas businessman who co-authored "The American Drive-In Movie Theatre" with his wife, Susan. While some theaters are closing, others are being reopened, he says, and a few are even newly built.

The Mendon drive-in just added a second screen this year "so we can rotate movies," says Sue Swanson, who owns the business with her friend Kathy Gorman. Ms. Swanson toils in the kitchen, making homemade Mexican food among other items. She gets help from family members, including her parents, in running a business she loves.

Food more than ticket sales is the salvation for many drive-ins. The aromas wafting from the grill put patrons in a mood to munch and mingle, says Mark Bialek, whose family frequents the Bengies Drive-In Theater in Baltimore. "The drive-in is more of a social atmosphere [than indoor theaters], and when people socialize they tend to eat more," says Mr. Bialek, the president of the Drive-In Theatre Fan Club.

The beauty of drive-ins, says film documentarian Jan Krawitz, who once studied drive-ins, is that they are both private and communal. Unlike viewers in indoor cinemas, drive-in patrons can comment on the movie in the privacy of their cars.

The communication is not always verbal. "It's all right to flick your lights and honk your horns," she says. "That's all part of it."

In the mid-1980s, Ms. Krawitz focused on theaters in Texas and the Southwest in filming "Drive-In Blues," about the death of these cultural icons. Abandoned, they formed a Stonehenge on the American landscape. Those still in business presented an even more arresting visual image. "The first time I came upon a drive-in in west Texas," Krawitz says, "the sight of a huge illuminated screen against a pitch-black sky was a pretty awesome experience."

Such magical after-dark transformations are dear to the heart of Mr. Sanders, who believes a whole generation of drive-in fans was lost but a new generation is in training.

"People are yearning for a happier time, one when things were easier to do and people got pleasure from more simple activities like miniature golf or going to drive-in restaurants or drive-in movies," he says.

Paul Geissinger, the owner of Shankweiler's Drive-In in Orefield, Pa., says a renaissance is possible because drive-ins combine two favorite American pastimes: the automobile and movies.

Mr. Geissinger says driven-ins bring families together in a way that even dinnertime often fails to do. "They help to secure the family nucleus because all of a sudden you have these people united for one common cause, to be entertained," he says.

Catering to the PJ-set

A family-type movie of some kind is usually shown first, followed by a more adult-oriented feature. That's when the little ones, some wearing pajamas, nod off. "A lot of children above eight or nine years old, stay awake, but I understand they fall asleep on the way home," Geissinger says.

Many theaters still have playground equipment for children to play on before the movies start. Most owners keep it very simple, Sanders says, because of liability concerns. Some offer extras such as a basketball court and pony rides.

At the 49er Drive-In Theatre in Valparaiso, Ind., some regulars arrive as early as 4:30 p.m. and park in the long driveway that leads to the box office, which doesn't open until 7 o'clock.

They come early to make sure of getting their favorite parking spot and for tailgate picnics, which owner Bruce Shinabarger allows both inside and outside the theater because he likes to see families interacting. It hasn't hurt concession sales, either.

The 49er also provides baby-changing tables, a bottle-warming service, playground equipment, and a bargain price - $7 per car load, with 25 persons the theater's one-car record. By popular demand, tinny, window speakers have been reinstalled for patrons who prefer them to the FM car-radio sound.

Ms. Swanson, at the Mendon drive-in, says that hovering over a hot grill night after night is tough work, but worth it. "We get a lot of repeat customers," she says. "We cater to families, and it's great to see everybody kicking back and having a happy time together."

And once a week, Swanson gives herself a night off to watch a movie and drink in that special, drive-in atmosphere.

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