Last week I sampled what used to be a cornerstone of American pop culture: the drive-in movie.
Depicted in films such as Grease and Back to the Future III, drive-ins peaked in the 1960s with images of blonde waitresses roller-skating to customers’ cars and hanging a tray on the door to hold the obligatory popcorn and soda.
Originally a depression-era way to keep prices down, the drive-in became a post-war favourite of families and smooching couples – not to say kids who hid in car boots to avoid paying. But the boomtime number of 5,000 drive-in theatres has dwindled to 500 as property developers have found more profitable ways of using the vast tracts of land they occupied.
We had to hit the freeway for over an hour in busy commuter traffic to reach the Mission Tiki Drive-in at Montclair, 25 miles inland from Los Angeles. Sadly, ours was one of only three cars lined up to see The Pirates! Band of Misfits.
OK, it is early in the season for a drive-in, which is really made for balmy July nights with the windows rolled down, rather than a windy May evening with the car heating on.
And Pirates! has had mixed reviews. The guy on the gate taking our $7 each raised his eyebrows when I said we wanted to see that rather than Avengers. He took our money with a weary shake of his head.
After picking our spot in the near-empty lot, I headed for the restroom and snack bar complex at the back.
I trudged across the undulating car park, built in rows of “waves” so all the cars can point up towards the massive white screen in the corner. It felt like crossing a frozen sea.
In the snack bar, a bored teen presided over a tired collection of pizzas, hot dogs and nachos that few people were going to buy. I passed a fellow in t-shirt, shorts and flip-flops who looked curiously at my windcheater and scarf. We clearly both thought the other was crazy.
The show started at 8 o’clock. Unfortunately dusk was not until about 8.20, so the three cars edged nearer to make out the hazy picture while we waited for the sun to go down.
In the old days they had huge loudspeakers to relay the sound. Now you just tune your car radio to a given FM wavelength.
Much more convenient, except the reception came with a background hiss which detracted from Hugh Grant’s performance as the Pirate Captain.
A great advantage of drive-ins is that no one can interrupt your view, and no one is going to kick the back of your seat. But there are downsides.
You don’t want to pick a movie that is too demanding, and Pirate! is a very British film, full of strange allusions and confusing shifts from ship to pirate island to Victorian London.
We managed, but I think it tested some of our fellow viewers.
In a multiplex you could move seats, or sneak into another show. Here, one bored family’s solution was to keep moving their car round the park with full headlights on. It added to the film’s sense of chaos. Kind of.
Maybe America has moved on. The most successful cinema chain at the moment is Arclight, which has bookable seats and decent coffee bars in return for ticket prices that are only slightly inflated – $11 a time if you sign up to their free member scheme – ie, part with your email address.