SHELTON, Wash. — At the drive-in, there’s time.
Since the coronavirus shutdown began three months ago, we’ve all been watching movies solely at home, where there’s no such thing as waiting for showtime; movies screen whenever we feel like watching them. But if you go to a movie at a drive-in theater (still the only way, at the moment, to watch a movie outside of your home in these parts), you arrive early to get a good spot, and then you wait until dark — which is, by the way, the title of a movie that would probably look pretty good at a drive-in. You sit, munching popcorn in your car and wondering about mosquitoes, and watch the people who have gathered as the sky slowly shadows. And you think about how, as long as you’ve been alive and longer, people have been going to drive-ins; pointing their car at a giant screen and waiting for moonlight.
Americans have been watching movies from their cars since 1933, when the first official drive-in opened in Camden, N.J.; its owner, a car-parts salesman, patented a system of ramps — sort of like stadium seating for cars — so that everyone could see the screen. With the arrival of in-car speakers in the 1940s, drive-in theaters became wildly popular; by the late 1950s, there were more than 4,000 of them nationwide.
But things are different now. All that land became expensive, and as once-remote areas became suburban communities, drive-ins began to rapidly disappear. Now, across the country, only a few hundred remain.
Until this month, I hadn’t been to a drive-in since I was a kid. I remember, faintly, going maybe a couple of times; piling into the car in my PJs, playing with other pajama’d kids on the drive-in’s playground, probably falling asleep long before the movie ended. But it seemed right, in these days, to go again. Under normal circumstances, would I drive for more than an hour for the privilege of watching a movie from too far away in the not-quite-luxurious confines of my Honda Fit, through a windshield that I belatedly realized could use a cleaning? No, but these are strange times, so I grabbed a willing accomplice and off we went, to the Skyline on a Wednesday and the Rodeo on a Sunday — seeing, respectively, “The Goonies” and “The Invisible Man.”
If you, like me, haven’t been to a drive-in in a while, here are some things to know. They no longer use those individual car speakers — though the Skyline, charmingly, still has the posts they once rested on; now their sole purpose is to show you where to park. Instead, you tune an FM radio to the movie’s soundtrack. (If you’re worried about draining your car battery, bring a portable one, or rent one at the concession counter.) Arrive early, because everybody else does. Don’t bring alcohol, marijuana or outside food; all are against the rules. (Like all movie theaters, drive-ins derive much of their income from concessions. Public service announcement: The burger at the Rodeo is very good.)
And there are, of course, a host of new rules related to COVID-19. Theaters are supposed to be at half-capacity, and patrons should wear masks when visiting the concession/restroom area. (As in life outside the drive-in, most but not all people seemed to be complying.) Moviegoers are required to stay in their cars when not en route to concessions or restrooms — no lawn chairs or sustained socializing — and those lining up for snacks use traffic markers to maintain proper distance.
All of these restrictions, particularly those masks, take us too bluntly to the present. But it’s easy, at a drive-in, to forget when and where you are. You park in front of a screen rimmed not with velvet curtains but a ring of trees or a cloud-splashed skyline, driving carefully along gravel or worn-hard grass and dirt. Other than the late-model cars, everything looks like it’s been there forever, in a pleasantly low-key way, right down to the handmade “Enjoy the Show / Starts at Dusk” sign on the Skyline’s wooded driveway. It could be the ’70s — before the show, Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” blares from someone’s stereo — or it could be today.
Most of the people gathered at the drive-ins I visited fit into two groups: teenagers — in duos or packs — and families with young children. (If you’re the latter and thinking of heading out, note that the kids playgrounds at drive-ins are currently closed due to coronavirus restrictions.) On two brisk Juneuary nights, I saw teens in shorts pretending they weren’t cold; kids trying to look nonchalant with their T-shirts pulled up over their noses (to comply with mask requirements); young couples snuggling in the back of a pickup truck; a quartet of teens transforming the back of a minivan into a snug cocoon, complete with sleeping bags and piles of pillows. One group cheerfully piled onto a couch that fit snugly in their pickup’s bed. People took selfies, filming the creamsicle-colored sunset. The whole experience felt like camp, but for movies.
And here’s what’s odd about those movies: Surely everyone at the Skyline or the Rodeo could have watched what they came to see at home. “The Goonies” didn’t translate very well to a drive-in screening — the projection was muddy, to such an extent that it was hard to tell the characters apart. “The Invisible Man,” newly in theaters earlier this year, fared much better — it looked crisp, and there was something delicious about watching a scary movie while out in the woods, with a potential invisible man right there in your back seat — but still could easily be watched in one’s living room.
But I suspect that didn’t matter. Going to the drive-in, it seems, is less about seeing a movie and more about the gathering: about rolling down the windows and smelling the cool quiet; about getting out of the house and seeing people on a larger-than-life screen; about parking a car on the same dirt that’s stood there for decades. About knowing that, as you sit in your car in the dark, there’s a quiet community all around you; all of us caught up in the movie and the night, together. About taking time, to pause and wait and let the world slow down, just a bit.
Someday, if we’re lucky, the coronavirus restrictions will just be a story that we tell. In the meantime, drive-ins hold plenty of stories of their own.