Drive-in theaters: a love letter

The drive-in theater was a star attraction during the summer.

Melanie Stetson Freeman
Twins Emma (l.) and Katie (r.) Blackford sit on their car at the Wellfleet Drive-In.

It’s hard to beat real lightning during “Fantastic Four.”

And I had a front seat to the show when I saw the movie at the drive-in near me the summer that the movie came out in 2005. Sure, seeing the movie in a closed-in theater would have been fine – maybe. The movie wasn’t the best. But when I was sitting in a lawn chair on pavement, watching the movie on a 100-foot screen outside, and suddenly saw lightning appear behind superheroes Ioan Gruffudd and Chris Evans… well, let’s just say it added a certain something.

In a world where most people only know drive-ins from “Grease,” I was lucky enough to grow up with one forty-five minutes away, an establishment that’s open from near the end of May to Labor Day and runs a nightly double bill of current films. It’s located in Wellfleet, Mass. on Cape Cod, and maybe that’s why, as far as I know, it’s never been in any danger of closing – the summer tourists who return year after year crowd into the parking lot at movie time as often as the locals do.

And it’s become as much a part of the summer season as getting the first ice cream cone – packing the car with beach chairs and blankets and cruising it up to the theater when it’s still light out. The parking lot often becomes an impromptu baseball diamond or Frisbee field before the first showing as families relax, and the playground near the snack bar is always a hot spot (my cousins, sister, and I went on the toys there well into our teens). A few minutes before the first movie, a Looney Tunes cartoon starts, usually one of the classics. The fact that the drive-in played them is one of the reasons my sister and I saw the shorts at all (a particular favorite was “Rabbit of Seville”). And then after the cartoon was the adorably old-fashioned intro, which could believably date back to the drive-in’s 1957 opening. The vintage clip tells Mom that it’s okay if she comes in “slacks.”

Younger kids can watch the first film in the double bill and then fall asleep in the back. And it was always a rite of passage when you were allowed to go to the drive-in by yourself with friends, with the added glamour of staying through the second movie starting at 10:15 – which, on the Cape where many establishments close early, was an added bonus. There’s also the added attraction of seeing exactly which movies will be paired together on the double bill, with a more family-friendly movie often leading off. The best combination I ever saw was 2003’s “Finding Nemo” followed by “Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl.”

Yes, it’s more enjoyable when the weather actually cooperates – rain has ruined drive-in trips before, though the theater still screens the planned films.

But that’s the chance you take, and it’s a small one to pay for occasional lightning shows.

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