The Drive-in Theater


30 July 2006





Once upon a time, drive-in theaters were sprinkled throughout the country, but today, not many remain. I am not sure the reason why drive-in theaters faded out of sight although now and again in my travels, I will come across one. Most recently while exploring Idaho, I came across this drive-in theater, which had this flatbed truck out-front with this giant, fake, potato on it, and the words “Big Spud Drive-in” written in large, block, white, letters. I forget what was playing but know that it was an operating business.


For those that do not know as they have never seen one, a drive-in theater is where, near dark, you drove your car into this semicircle parking lot stadium seating sort of place, paying for a car and not the number of passengers, picked a row, drove up a slight embankment, which raised the front of the car higher than the rear and then lifted the speaker off a speaker column and clipped it onto your window. At any one speaker column, there was speaker for a car on the left and a speaker for the car on the right. Sometimes, you would pull into a spot only to find that the speaker on your side was missing as someone had pulled away upon leaving and had yanked the speaker out with them, a souvenir of the drive-in. Once you were all parked and the angle of your front-end just where you wanted it, not too high and not too low, you and all passengers in the car then proceeded to watch one or more movies as soon as it got dark enough for the projector to light the billboard sign size screen. Well, sometimes the movies were watched but more about that later.


Where I grew up, Winchester, Virginia, there were 2 drive-in theaters in town or actually in the surrounding county and although my family did not go often, we did go as a family now and again and after I learned to drive and began dating, I went quite often, but again, more on that later.


Compared to going to a movie theater, going to the drive-in was cheap entertainment as you only paid for the vehicle and you could bring in all the food, beer, whatever, you wanted. There might have been a sign about bringing in food but were they going to search each and every car? Sometimes while sitting in line to get in the drive-in, I would see a pickup truck in front of me with the truck bed full of people, maybe 10 or more and several huge coolers and other bags, which had to be food. In the case of pickup trucks, these often parked with their bed end towards the screen and folks would sit out in the open in the bed of the truck on lawn chairs. Although I tried bringing a blanket and just laying out once or twice, the mosquitoes seem to have known the address of the drive-in and always came to visit as soon as it was dark. For some reason I do not remember them ever getting inside the car but assume they did now and again.


As I said, there were 2 drive-in theaters in the Winchester area but right now I can only recall the name of one of them and that was “Winchester Drive-in Theater.” (Wonder why I recall the name of that one?) Anyway, the Winchester drive-in theater in those days had a one-story cinderblock concession stand, which also housed the movie projector. Between movies and there was always a double feature with a piece of junk movie first you had to sit through to get to the movie you really came for, there was always a 15-minute intermission, which allowed folks to jump out of their cars, trucks, or up off their picnic style blankets and head to the concession stand for popcorn and other food. Always a million degrees inside, I suspect no one in their right mind today would buy and eat anything out of the concession stand as it was back then. The concession stand, movie projector building, also housed bathrooms but only for whites. Yes, I am old enough to remember that there was an outhouse sort of building off to one side of the theater parking lot, all by itself, with a sign on it saying “Coloreds.” “Coloreds,” as “they” were called by semi-civilized folks in the Confederate southern town of Winchester, were also not allowed in the concession stand at any time, intermission or not. As far as I know or remember, Blacks could park anywhere they wished, in any row but I not sure about that now and suspect they were limited to the back rows.


The drive-in. Although not clear from above, the drive-ins in the Winchester area only operated during the summer. I understand that in some areas of the country, drive-ins stayed open all winter and you could rent this heater thing you placed in your car to keep warm while you watched your double feature.


And so it was a family place where you packed them in the old family car or truck and brought you own popcorn and drinks and watched 2 movies for $6 or so, but it was also a date, dating, sort of place. As I said, the parking lot was arranged stadium seating style with many, many rows. Whereas families tended towards the front or at least in front of the concession stand\projection building, those who were out on a date, tended to the back rows were cars were spaced further apart and there were less cars overall.


Today, I am not sure if people actually “date” or not. I assume that taking a girl or woman to a movie still happens and I know that dates include eating out as it did in my time in the early 1960’s but the drive-in presented a special opportunity for an adventurous young man. Although not specifically worded or stated, if a girl, lady, woman, said “yes” to a drive-in date, she was basically saying yes to one lot of “necking” as it was referred to then and sometimes even more. I never asked a girl out to a drive-in movie on a first date as I thought it too forward of me but perhaps there were those men, boys, who did. I am not sure now.


What a perfect place, the drive-in, to get to explore the feminine, or it was for me. Where else could I go with a woman so cheaply and have such privacy? Yes, there were “lover’s lanes” in the Winchester area and I did learn of and use these later, but to begin with, the drive-in was a “legal,” acceptable, date invitation.


And so, secrets divulged? No, that would be telling and a gentleman never tells but I can tell you that I got my first “outside titty rub”, as a college room mate liked to refer to it, at the Winchester Drive-in Theater plus some.


Funny, if you were on the back row and went to the concession stand at “half-time,” you could do a quick look around and most, if not all the windows in all the cars back there were steamed up so you could not even see inside. Not much movie-watching going on back there.


And so the movies were watched or not watched and when the last of the second reeler was over, the mad dash to the one lane exit would begin and a cloud of dust would rise up from the dusty old theater grounds. Why the Winchester Drive-in had 2 lanes going in but only 1 going out, I will never know. Often cars would not even attempt to leave until after just about everyone else had left but then again, perhaps leaving was not part of the agenda to begin with. Exiting was also an adventure in missing all sorts of obstacles like beer and soda bottles and all sorts of unrecognizable trash.


When I went to college, the Winchester Drive-in Theater was still going strong and I went there many times on dates in the summer between school sessions. Then I got married and moved away and would only infrequently drive by the theater. I am not sure what happened but after a while, the marquee would only display soft-porno type titles and then only for Friday and Saturday night.


As I said, I seldom got back to Winchester over the years after college but one day, I came by and instead of listing a movie listed on the manqué, it just said, “Closed” with a chain across the dual lane entrance and single lane exit.


Then on another visit, the lot was being used for a Saturday and Sunday flea market but apparently that could not pay the bills either and from then on, if I passed the theater, I would notice pieces of the giant screen were missing and laying in a pile at its base and eventually, letters of the drive-in’s name also tumbled down.


Finally, on one pass, it was gone, all gone, bulldozed flat and nothing but weeds growing up where so many memories had been made and movies watched.


Now, I am not sure what sits now the Winchester Drive-in used to be. Could be a lumberyard, a gasoline service station, a convenience mart or all the above plus some. Funny how once something is gone, like a building and replaced by something else, it is hard to remember exactly where the original stood or was.


Movies and other. Thinking about it now, I wonder how many babies of the leading edge of the baby boomers were conceived at the Winchester Drive-in? I wonder if one movie was better than another for conception? Know I went to see “Around the World in 80 Days” and had to go to movie theater to actually see the movie. Perhaps the bad movies were better for conception that the good ones?


It is too bad that drive-in theaters are gone. I would go if there was one around me, just for old time sake. Doubt there would be much messing around now with car bucket seats and all but would be fun to find out.


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