A Night At The Drive-In

Americans love to innovate and solve problems that nobody realized existed before. Not long after we began hitting the roads in droves in our shiny new Chevys and Fords and Pontiacs and Buicks, one Richard Hollingshead solved the problem of unbearably uncomfortable movie theatre seats by inventing the “park-in theatre”.

Hollingshead actually owned the patent on drive-up movie entertainment from 1933 until 1949. During those years automobile-bound movie-viewers were required to enjoy Hollywood fare from the comfort of their cars in Hollingshead’s Park-In Theater in Camden, New Jersey. When his patent was overturned in 1949, the term “drive-in” became preferred over “park-in” and the concept began popping up all over the country, just in time for the 1950’s.

Nothing says 1950’s America like a drive-in movie-theater. At the height of drive-in popularity, there were 5,000 or so of them across the country. One, the “All-Weather Drive-In” of Copiague, New York, could accommodate an impressive 2,500 cars. Changing culture and times, rising real estate prices, and other factors led to the decline of the drive-in theater going into the 1970’s, just in time for this travel blog couple to get a taste of them as children before they faded into nostalgic corners of the country. Today, there are fewer than 500 drive-in theaters still operating in the US.

One of them is the Van Buren Drive-In in Riverside, California, situated neatly east of Los Angeles and west of Palm Springs just outside the Coachella Valley. We went on a Saturday. During the morning they had a swap meet (a “flea market” for our friends back east, or a “car boot sale” for our British readers—Chuck calls them “Junk and Crap Shows”, not to be confused with “Arts and Crafts Shows”, which really are similar when you think about it). Unless you’re in the market for 6-time surplus off-brand tennis shoes, used tools, or old auto parts from the Truman administration, the best thing about the swap meet is the hot dogs they serve at the snack bar.

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Saturday Swap Meet at the Van Buren Drive-In, Riverside, California

The real event occurs when the sun goes down. The Van Buren features 3 screens, each showing a double feature. Ours was “Ant-Man” followed by “Inside Out”.  Back in our day (oh, no, we’re saying that now?!?) the movie audio came into the comfort of your automobile via a heavy metal box that you dangerously hung on your half-open window which deftly delivered tinny monaural movie splendor directly into the left ear of the driver, temporarily deafening them. At the Van Buren, we tuned our radio to a designated channel and were treated to stereophonic glory. Wow, times they have a-changed.

To reinforce the notion that times have changed (for us and for the drive-in theater), we opened a bag of contraband popcorn and popped the cork on a bottle of wine and settled in for 4+ hours of double-feature fun. Every now and then, when the “Ant-Man” action was at its best, I would reach down and crank up the volume and we’d enjoy some “Sense-Surround” (is that still a registered trademark?) But don’t tell Lori: she just thinks the drive-in’s sound system was totally awesome.

By the way, both movies were among the best that we saw this summer.

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“Ant-Man” in Drive-In Movie Splendor

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