By Marc S. Sanders
I have a confession to make. As much of a movie lover that I am, I have never seen a movie at a drive-in theater. I should know better. Fortunately, I had the honor of learning about this well-established culture of Americana while getting a private screening of a new documentary film called Back To The Drive-in, written and directed by April Wright.
Back To The Drive-in covers the resiliency of eleven different drive-in theaters spanning from Massachusetts, down to Texas, across to the state of Nebraska, and California beyond. All of these institutions have likely been around longer than three times the age of most of their teenage and twentysomething employees. They may be located in different areas of the greater United States, but many of these outdoor movie palaces have no choice but to contend with the same ailments that accompany a new age of living during the time of the Covid pandemic. That’s the common theme April Wright covers as she turns on her cameras allowing the owners, their families and staff to discuss experiences, frustrations, worries and uncompromised passion for the drive-in.
The craft of Wright’s film is beautiful. There are vast overhead shots of each drive-in that transition perfectly into the intimacy of a lived-in office or a concession stand down below. As her film moves from one drive-in to the next, the chapters open like picture perfect post cards of an American institution that has survived for over 60 years. My only familiarity with drive-in movies likely stem from episodes of the sitcom Happy Days, where Richie and Potsie would make out with their girlfriends in the front seat during the monster movie. This insightful documentary, however, showcases how drive-ins operate in an age of new technology or lack thereof. It also presents problems that have been ongoing since long before Covid arrived.
The unpredictability of weather abounds for many of these owners. The most interesting story for me comes from the Wellfleet drive-in located near Cape Cod, Ma. The owner, John Vincent, is a friendly enough gentleman, who tells of his history working for the drive-in first in the ticket booth while he was a teenager back in 1987, all the way up to now being a proud and concerned owner. Warts and all, he loves the drive-in. The offensive f-word for him, though, is fog. With his business located near the ocean, it is hard to tell if the large outdoor screen will offer up a good enough picture for the Saturday night film. Each time April Wright’s documentary returns to footage from Wellfleet, I was in suspense. Mr. Vincent talks about how on a good night he’d have 300 cars parked ahead of the feature presentation. On this night, with imminent fog, it’s lucky he has 117 cars. Every time Wellfleet appeared in the film, the fog only looked thicker and thicker. Fog has become an all too real fear.
A common problem for all of the drive-ins is the weather. Another location is concerned about lightning in the area. It goes with the territory that the managers and operators regularly monitor the weather apps. I want to know what they did in the ‘60s to prepare for this uncertainty.
Supply shortages, inflation, worker shortages. All of these drive-ins face the same threats. Wellfleet also contends with out-of-date technology where the speakers are burned out and the underground wiring needs repair. Yet, that means digging up concrete at a huge expense.
As the time period focuses on the drive-in attractions in response to Covid, it seems to present a small favor for these businesses. At the start of the pandemic, when new Hollywood pictures were being released in limited supply, there was at least the escapism of the drive-in for consumers who were exhausted over quarantining. People could at least catch a classic flick like Back To The Future, and maintain social distancing within their own cars. Still, Brian Smith who owns Coyote out of Fort Worth, Texas has to protect his teenage staff from angry, foul-mouthed patrons unwilling to cooperate with mask mandates while visiting the concession stand. He talks about how he looks out for the kids who work for him, but even depression and the challenge to keep up with school is overwhelming.
Now that vaccinations have provided relief from isolation, the struggle is all the more real for these business owners. Ben and Nora Harroun who operate Galaxy Drive-in Ennis, Texas mention competing with streaming services for new film releases.
Other drive-ins attempt to reinvent what they have. Field Of Dreams located in Ohio is offering up live concert entertainment. Quasar in Nebraska was an I-70 drive-in refurbished by Rod and Donna Saunders with the latest technology and architectural designs. Their friends said they were crazy to invest in this, but for the Saunders it is crazy to let an institution fade away. Their retirement was meant to sustain the atmosphere accompanied with a drive-in movie.
There’s a culture to this industry. These owners talk with one another and share their love for this uncertain and struggling industry. Drive-ins seem outdated in an age of comfortable multiplexes and the convenience and safety of at home streaming. They share each other’s pain while also appreciating the value a film like F9 (Fast & Furious) can draw on a Saturday night. They take pride in the specialty food crafts they sell at the counter from funnel cakes to a delectable pulled pork sandwich for seven dollars. To many of us, selling a box of Nerds candy or not selling chocolate products to avoid the risk of melting, might seem like a mundane awareness, easily taken for granted. To these folks, it means the difference of the outcome of their current season in the age of Covid. April Wright captures a young girl describing how she burned a scar into her finger on a popcorn machine. These are proud war wounds, accepted within the ongoing challenge of keeping a business afloat and a decades long tradition alive.
April Wright’s documentary is breathtaking. As her camera soars above the wide-open spaces of worn-out grass and cratered concrete with large movie screens at the edge, you absorb the history of places within the United States urging us to rediscover again. Our eyes only opened a little during a desperate time in 2020, but these preservationists wonder if they will be able to hold on. I won’t spoil the outcomes some of these businesses face during a footnote of coverage featured in the end credits, but perhaps a follow up piece is on the horizon from Ms. Wright. These drive-in locales live with unstable fluidity. Doubt, accompanied with hope, is what I walked away with following my viewing of the picture. What will the American drive-in theater look like in a year from now?