A friend who studied abroad in India some time ago happened to mention the other night over turkey and cranberries that she’d been to a drive-in in the sub-continent. Drive-ins not in the U.S? Who knew?
“When I was staying with a local family, we packed poori and dhal and beer and chutney and other edibles and went off to catch a little Bollywood....” Amazing! While I was struggling to run a 2,672-seat movie palace, the St. George Theatre in Staten Island, she was sitting under the Indian stars, eating Tandoori and knocking back a couple of Taj Mahals, Ali Baba playing on screen.
I’d always assumed drive-ins were a strictly American phenom. We’re the car culture of the world; only in America would a man — whose (obese?) mother couldn’t fit comfortably into a standard movie house seat — think to invent a theater where she could stay in the family car, eat popcorn and watch the flick in private. The man whose mother that was, Richard Hollingshead, was a movie fan and sales manager at his father’s company, Whiz Auto Products, in Camden, New Jersey. He patented his idea, which became Park-In Theaters in 1933.
Back to Thanksgiving. While I was deep in conversation with my friend about the plots of Indian films, my husband, at the other end of the table, was having a parallel conversation with another friend, a British ex-pat, who noted that there are two drive-ins in the U.K., and he’s been to neither. He’d like to go to a drive-in anywhere, soon. Perhaps this will happen for him, with more than ten drive-ins within two hours of New York City.
As to their number in the U.K., he’s close to right; there are actually three drive-ins there, one in Manchester, one in Liverpool and one in London. The one in London sounds like a real send-off of all things American; according to the London TimesDriving column, “As we pull up at the ticket office an usherette on roller skates slides up to our door. Dressed in classic American-style garb, she explains how the screening works: attendants will guide us to a space; we should switch off the headlights to avoid dazzling or flattening the battery; we may run the engine, if necessary; be sure to tune in to the film’s FM frequency on your stereo; flash the hazard lights if you need any refreshments…”
The Drive-In Film Club in Brent Cross Shopping Centre in North London has something on the drive-ins of my youth, the Oakley and the Montgomery, in Cincinnati, (both long gone). Who could imagine car-hops with food? or usherettes on roller skates? We hoofed it to the snack stand in my day, and, from what I’ve seen of revived American drive-ins, people still make their way there on foot — or send the kids. How else to get them out of your hair for a minute? Other drive-in theaters in the U.K., which would include the Route 66 (yes!) chain, are owned by the same outfit. Route 66 has screens in Manchester, Liverpool and, soon, in Leeds. Don’t miss the previous link if you want to read about how insane Brits are these days on the subject of remaining in their cars. The Liverpool Route 66 is only one feature of a 24-hour attempt on the part of one London Timesreporter to remain in his car for a whole day, eating, stopping for coffee, going to a bank and a dry cleaners, and, yes, a movie, followed by napping in a tony part of London. He even profiles a type of disposable urinal.
The reason drive-in theaters are on the rise in Britain is so is gridlock; which is a clue to why India, with its growing population of drivers, has four drive-in theaters. The largest one, which happens to be larger than any other drive-in theater I know of, is the Sunset Drive-In in Ahmedabad, with, they claim, space to play to 6000 people for a single showing (665 very crowded cars). Screening mainly home-grown fare from Bollywood, the Sunset doesn’t actually require a car for admission. Pedestrians stand under a special covered area despite winter temperatures as high as 30 degrees Celsius (86F).The world’s only beach-side drive-in, the Prarthana, is located in Southern India, and includes “on-site dining.” The STBL, on the coast in Northeast India, got four stars from UdaY, who noted, three weeks ago, “You can visit here with your four wheeler directly to the outdoor theatre to watch the movies. Both indoor & outdoor also available here. For outdoor they also provide chairs and fans just beside to your four wheeler. Food zone; snacks ; other amusements for kids are also available here. They also provide a free cab from highway to the theatre. Try to visit this place at least once for a different chill outs.” There’s apparently a brand-new drive-in in Mumbai. Which theater did my Thanksgiving guest have the pleasure of visiting? And was she in a car?
I found only one mention of a drive-in in Europe, in Cadiz, Spain, but it’s in Fort Mitchell, a naval base, so I imagine, from the name (Flix Cinema) that it must be American. Doesn’t count. There are lots of outdoor cinemas in Paris, Barcelona, Locarno, Vienna, and other European locales, but all of them are for pedestrians. If you want to experience outdoor movies from an individual hot tub, check out hot tub cinemas in London, Liverpool, New York, Ontario, Los Angeles and elsewhere; but you can’t drive a hot tub, and the screen-size sucks.
Where else are drive-ins on the rise? China, of course. With a burgeoning car culture, you can bet that the two drive-ins I could find evidence of that are available to Chinese movie patrons, are likely to spawn more. For a trip to the Maple Motor Theatre in Beijing, check out this YouTube video, which includes an interview with Wang Qishun the owner and founder. He always loved movies, and then he loved cars. It became his life’s dream to “...let our friends and other car owners watch movies in their cars like Americans.” He’s done that, and now he’s going for a chain; there may already be as many as ten drive-ins throughout China, he speculates.
I love drive-ins. There are currently only around 333 in the U.S., which still makes us the drive-in theater Mecca of the world; but nothing compared to the 4,000 that squeezed in cars in the late 1950’s. Currently, there is at least one drive-in in every state but Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii, Louisiana and North Dakota. Find one near you.
Despite the fact that drive-ins world-wide are likely indicators of global warming on the rise, I understand why people in India, China and the U.K. are warming (no pun intended) to them. As Nick Frow, Director of the Drive-In Film Club in London, observes, “Your car is your kingdom, basically. You can do exactly what you want when you want to do it in your car. You want to rustle your sweet packets? Want to talk to your missus, or the family in the back? Brought a baby and it wants to cry or needs a feed? No problem. It’s perfect.”
I gather that rustling sweet packets has to do with candy, though it has a slightly sexy sound to it; but then drive-ins have always been great places to fool around. The steamed-up windows provide perfect sanctuary. Here’s to the Oakley in Cincinnati, scene, in my life, of several passionate dates, and these days the site of a retirement home. I wonder if any of the residents upstairs revisit nights they recall having in cars, down on ground level, half a century ago?