Thursday, September 14, 2006

Drive-In a Way to Look Ahead to the Past

A few years ago my wife and I read in this paper that the Getty Drive-In Theatre and Muskegon would be closing. We looked at each other and said, “have you ever been to a drive-in?” Neither of us had. So we decided to go just to say we had known the experience before it was permanently lost to a previous era.

Apparently, many of you thought the same thing.

The Getty is still open. Judging from a recent visit, it appears to even be thriving. After the threat of closure, many West Michigan residents re-acquainted themselves with the drive-in experience, and many more were introduced to the idea for the first time. It has led to a resurgence in drive-in movie-goers.

By coincidence, I read an article in TIME magazine about drive-ins in August, during the same week that we took my nephew to the Getty Theatre to give him the drive in experience. TIME notes that after the first drive-in came into existence in Camden, New Jersey in 1933, the concept grew steadily. But, like many other things in modern life, the drive-in fell prey to air-conditioned megaplex theatres, VCRs, DVDs, TiVo, video on demand via cable television, and the ability to download films from the Internet. By 1995 there were fewer than 500 drive-ins left in the country.

But, since then, the number has grown to 658. Why the turnaround? There are lots of opinions and theories, with truth in all of them.

One reason has to be price. The Getty offers double features for a reasonable rate compared to conventional theatres. With no need to build and maintain a large indoor theatre, they can keep their costs low.

Another reason has to be the combination of two great American pastimes—camping and movie watching. At the drive-in, you can sit outdoors—or recline in the seat of your vehicle—and watch the film. You can be outside in the fresh air and be entertained by the latest feature films. It’s sort of like a silver screen campfire.

Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that our summers are preciously short in Michigan. People can’t give up their entertainment addiction, but they also want to be outside while the weather is nice. The drive-in accommodates both desires simultaneously.

I also think there is something about humanity that periodically rejects the inevitable onslaught of technology. With all the electronic entertainment options we have, there is a pull to the simplicity of the drive-in experience. For the young, of course, it may simply be something “new” to them. But for others, it may feel refreshing to unwind figuratively along with the literal unwinding of the reel of film.

It is interesting. I looked around at the setting when we were at the Getty recently and couldn’t help but think about scenes in the developing world that were ironically similar. I was in the Philippines once and noticed a billboard for the movie “Back to the Future” in a remote part of the country. In this case, I was told, it was likely a bootlegged VHS copy of the film that would be shown by battery-powered projector onto a bed sheet hung from a tree. The locals loved it. Of course, for them it may have been their only option.

A few weeks ago, sitting in camp chairs on the little grassy berm in front of our car, I enjoyed the two films as a bit of nostalgia. I was experiencing something I had only known about from the old TV show “Happy Days” or other historical references. For my nephew, Matthew, it was a new experience. There were some surprises for the eight-year-old.

“I thought there would be sounds in the movie; I didn’t expect speakers next to the car or sounds on the car radio,” he said. “I expected the screens to be smaller.”

He also expressed a few disappointments.

“I didn’t like sitting outside and watching the movie because it was getting kinda cold,” he admitted, although he did say there was a better view outside compared to a regular theatre. He also liked that you got to see two movies—even though he fell asleep during the second feature.

So, drive-ins persist against the advance of time. It’s modern entertainment in a nostalgic setting. Many are choosing drive-ins against options that would seem more convenient and comfortable. For all the advances in technology, human beings still have a basic yearning for simplicity. There’s something reassuring about that.

If you want to know what I mean, there are only a few more weeks of drive-in season left.