Drive-in Of Dreams

They’ll come to Iowa for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll turn into your driveway, not knowing for sure why they’re doing it. They’ll arrive at your door, as innocent as children, longing for the past. “Of course, we won’t mind if you look around,” you’ll say, “It’s only twenty dollars per person.” And they’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it, for it is money they have and peace they lack. And they’ll walk off to the bleachers and sit in their short sleeves on a perfect afternoon. And find they have reserved seats somewhere along the baselines where they sat when they were children. And cheer their heroes. And they’ll watch the game, and it’ll be as they’d dipped themselves in magic waters.

Terrance Mann (Played by James Earl Jones) Field of Dreams 1989

For some years now I have become increasingly convinced that when America re-discovers both drive-ins and baseball it can begin the process of healing itself. There is a civility and a relaxed aura to both activities. Coupled with that, I believe that the isolating dynamic of this pandemic is going to have a lingering effect on the consuming public.

I just screened “Field Of Dreams” and I found much of this tale about the quest for a simple America that is portrayed in this fine movie is applicable to the re-emergence of the drive-in. Like Lazarus, the drive-in has risen from the dead and has regained its rightful place and has re-ignited the imagination of the American movie going public.

As the summer wades into being with its humidity, warm nights, and dancing of lightning bugs a life long seduction is taking shape and overwhelming us. For that we are grateful. The sway of the evening breeze and the sound of life surrounding you takes the shape of chirping sparrows, the amorous proclamations of a bullfrog, and the shuffle of animals lurking in the dark until your exit from the scene. It is a time of life, a time of tradition, and a deep time of being.

On country roads a parade of car lights brings testimony of the dustiness of the day. They slowly are making their way to the shrine of movie-going; the drive-in. Drive-ins that for many only existed in past memory or in the recollections of an older relative. To many, a drive-in is just a tangled mess of metal and plywood sitting in a field. Children ask as they pass by “What is that?” and the response is usually something in the area of, “well people used to watch movies there.” The child would think about it for a second and then go on to their next point of curiosity.

Covid has slowed our manic society. It is allowing us to see what is good again. It is allowing us to see what is important. As theaters were shuttered, people started thinking about movie going and how important it is to them. That storytelling and that being together as one to witness that story is something they want for themselves and for their children.

The passion for the drive-in and movie going is something society is re-discovering. The ticket booth, the gentle slopped hills of grass, the sound coming through your car FM radio. The rolling out of blankets for the kids in the back seat, playing frisbee in front of a 100 foot white screen.

For me, the concession stand at a drive-in is an expression of deep Americana and of free enterprise in the truest sense of the word. Food has always been consumed at a higher rate than at a traditional movie theater. There was always more variety, often cheaper pricing and the food was always fresher.

Suddenly the slow and evocative grind of a Cretors popcorn machine with a 32 oz kettle is recalled. The smell that rises when hotdogs begin to sweat on the rollers. The smell when Flavacol hits hot liquid coconut oil, the yeasty smell of pretzels under a hot lamp. The slow parade of customers moving towards a drive-in concession stand . Their eyes darting and their taste buds being seduced, what is that in the corner of their eye,,,,is it….yes a Chilly Dilly Pickle…In that conga line of consumption, that purposeful slowing down increases impulse buying. That tugging on the sleeve after a child spies something they want. Fathers laying down money for ring pops and foot long licorice. The moviegoers head back to their car, burdened with 130oz of popcorn, 4 hotdogs, a box of Good Plenty and a box of Junior Mints. This of course will all be washed down with 32 oz of some gas infused syrup and water.

As they make their way back to the car, they begin to think of what they will get during intermission.

The program starts, lights flicker out of the back of the concession stand. Bugs throw themselves in the path of the light. Trailers are shown, and then the feature starts. The noise is the car subsides. Eyes are transfixed on the screen. Children attempt to look past the much larger heads of their parents. Couples use this time to snuggle closer to each other. The children will soon tire and fall asleep in the backseat. Usually the second feature is accompanied by the snoring and stirrings of the children.

Drive-ins have re-entered our cultural psyche again. It is allegorical that last week a movie about bringing back the past, Jurassic Park was number 1 again at the box office. As studios retreat, drive-ins are stepping up to wave the banner of movie going. Movies are being projected against giant rubber inflated screens, the side of barns and on the exterior walls of shuttered theaters. Every week more and more drive-ins are shining a light into a night sky.

Drive-ins are providing an outlet for movie goers to define their own experience. Instead of a false and silicone injected vision dreamt up by some bureaucrat at Regal, United Artist or AMC they are being provided a more organic form of exhibition. It is getting back to basics; good storytelling, value for families, and in the light this pandemic a recent addition, safety. While the majority of the exhibition industry is struggling to establish some normalcy, a normalcy that looks increasingly distant, drive-ins are holding the siege for the tradition of movie going.

When my son was eight, we owned a drive-in. While my wife was not amused with the total consumption of our time that this project of mine required, my son and I loved it. One evening my son, who by this time had garnered the nickname from our customers as “The King Of Concessions” turned to me after making his first batch of popcorn with a huge smile on his face, and blurted out the words “Dad, I was born for this.”

This statement, like much that comes out of the mouth of children, gives light to the truth that for most drive-in operators, a drive-in is not a job, not a career….it is a vocation.

There is still deep magic in the movies, it is not in Hollywood, nor with the circuits. The magic and the movie going memories are firmly back in the embrace of the drive-in. A drive-in provides freedom, it provides an opportunity to engage in movie going on your own terms and if you choose you can watch a movie in your pajamas in the safety of your own car. A drive-in theater is both magic and memory.

This is the weekend where American’s celebrate their independence. I truly hope this Independence Day and the introspection it may bring, can be a recommital to the simple things that make this country great. The crack of a bat, the flickering of stories on a big screen. Moviegoing is so very important, let’s protect it.

P.S/Wal-Mart…none of the applies to you

The memories will be so thick, they’ll have to brush them away from their faces. People will come, Ray. The one constant through all the years Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and that could be again. Oh people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come.

Terrance Mann (Played by James Earl Jones) Field of Dreams 1989