December at a drive-in, in frosty Ohio? You bet. In those days outdoor theaters were open year-round, pretty much everywhere. The disappearance of the front-seat pair says a lot about the Oakley’s winter demographic in those days, mostly couples.
Starting in the late sixties, drive-ins dwindled, until recently, to a few hundred nation-wide — from some 4,000 back in the day. A decade later, Dean and I (the back-seat couple from the story) had married and moved to New York, specifically to Staten Island, where for one year we signed the lease on a 2,672-seat movie palace, the St. George Theatre (1976). At that point, drive-ins were in steep descent, the result of an oil crisis which raised the price of gas and downsized cars (gone that Electra). Meanwhile, the value of vacant lots had made the land drive-ins were sitting on tempting for owners to sell off. Case in point, the 600-car Staten Island Drive-In which closed, in all probability, the year before we arrived, 1968; the land it had inhabited morphed briefly into part of a now-defunct airport, and finally, what else, a mall.
Forty-four years later, Covid. With national chains of conventional theaters in serious trouble, drive-ins are suddenly the main-stay of the exhibition business. Forty-two states currently allow indoor movie attendance, but some big-audience states, New York and California, for instance, are still holding back. Hollywood’s not releasing much product, but drive-ins don’t care, they aren’t used to first-run flicks anyway. Going to the drive-in is not about the movie, but about the theater! — and about getting out. Drive-ins are hot now...at least while it is hot, in the Northeast and Midwest.
Until this year, northerly drive-ins had become largely a seasonal business, with the last movie hitting the screen in places like The Mahoning in Lehighton, Pennsylvania, on Halloween. “Our projectors start to have a harder time operating as it gets colder...” says Mark, who quickly answered my email. I can certainly imagine. They’re an amazing operation, the Mahoning; check them out whenever you can do it.
Who’d want to watch a movie through the snow anyhow? Well, some will, we did, once-upon-a-time, and might again.You have to bring blankets, and run the car heater periodically – then there’s always body warmth!
Some older drive-ins in cold climes have made it a tradition to stay open year-round. As of 2016, in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Washington, some screens are lighted, if only on weekends, during bundling weather. The Ford Drive-In, so named for its proximity to Detroit, has been doing this, weekends only, for all seventy of its years. Valentine’s Day is a particularly popular weekend for them, despite the cold. This mention of V-Day plucked the strings of my heart, as two months after that New Year’s date, Dean and I returned to the Oakley on Valentine’s Eve, by ourselves, a heart-shaped cake and some flowers in the backseat.
I would think this winter weekend trend might actually accelerate, given the nature of our on-going health crisis. People are stir-crazy, and going to the movies is, traditionally, an activity that first comes to mind when you want to get out of the house.
If and when the big states do let indoor theaters open, the question will remain: how many people are willing to hazard being socially-distanced for several hours in the theater dark, in seats previously inhabited by other moviegoers? Meanwhile, you can always pack a picnic, and watch the flick through your windshield, iced or otherwise. Try it some time!
1. The Staten Island Drive-In’s closing date is up for debate, which is why I said that, in all probability, it closed in 1968. That guess argues with the official text of its Cinema Treasures entry, but, if you hang out on Cinema Treasures, the comments are often illuminating. One such commenter mentions going to Rosemary’s Baby at the drive-in, a movie that came out in ’68. Hmmm....
2. A link to a good piece on the drive-in craze, and a return to a familiar home drive-in, was sent by alert reader and dear friend, Beth Gorrie. The writer of the piece obviously pines for his youth...
3. Walmart is making a play for the national drive-in market; pop-ups nationwide. Sounds alright, if hardly the real thing.