At Thanksgiving dinner in 2018, a friend who had studied abroad in India happened to mention 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? I did some research, and discovered how world-wide this very American institution really is.
Fast-forward to now. Wondering if the drive-in renaissance on this side of the pond is also taking off on other shores, I snooped around this morning and found, according to the BBC:
The UK, which only had three drive-in cinemas before the pandemic began, and none of them permanent, now has 40 sites offering a drive-in movie experience, including a cliff top in Cornwall. More drive-in cinemas are opening in Russia and Germany, and ticket sales are booming in South Korea. In Brazil, a football stadium has transformed into a drive-in.
The world appears to be re-inventing itself, in cars! So Here’s a re-cap of my original TG conversation from two years ago, with the occasional bracketed comment from me, today. Not only am I nostalgic for the conversation, but for the closely-packed table and fear-free dining. May it come again soon.
My friend reflected on her time living with an Indian family,
“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, Shah Rukh Khan dominating the 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. [Note: that number has jumped to 18 since the Pandemic began.]
As to their number in the U.K., there are [were] three drive-ins, 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 is [was] reminiscent of 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. [I’m sure that’s MORE insane now].The Liverpool Route 66 is only one feature of a 24-hour attempt on the part of one London Times reporter 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. [Note: I know about these, having acquired a few for long Pandemic drives].
The reason drive-in theaters are on the rise in Britain is [or was, in 2018] so is gridlock; which is a clue to why India, with its growing population of drivers, has [or had at the time] 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). [Presumably, this custom may have been temporarily altered out of deference to Covid]. 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, “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...Try to visit this place at least once for a different chill outs.” There’s apparently [or was at the time] 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 [at the time] only one mention of a drive-in in Europe, in Cadiz, Spain, but in Fort Mitchell, a naval base, so I imagine, from the name (Flix Cinema) that it must be American. There are [were] lots of outdoor cinemas in Paris, Barcelona, Locarno, Vienna, and other European locales, all of them for pedestrians. [How this has changed!]
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 305 drive-ins in the U.S., but this figure seems inaccurate, as the United Drive-In Theatres Association still lists Alaska as having none, while the BBC mentions one! In any event, this continues to make us the drive-in theater Mecca of the world; still nothing compared to the 4,000 that squeezed in cars in the late 1950’s. Currently, there is at least one drive-in in almost every state. 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?
Here’s the link to the BBC article in its entirety. Deals with a lot more than movies, BTW. In Europe, art museums are hosting drive-through exhibits. What’s next?