When I was a kid back in Green Bay, Wisc., the family would pile into the station wagon and go out for an evening of movies at the drive-in. In our case, it was the Starlite Drive-In, which had opened in 1949. A few years later, it was my high school buddies and me, still going to the Starlite, but this time with beer to go along with the popcorn and Castleberry barbeque sandwiches.
But in 1982 the Starlite closed, never to re-open.
So it went with many drive-ins around the country. However, in 2020 the pandemic generated new interest in going “out to the movies” without exposing oneself to contagion, and the drive-in offered the perfect solution. Those few still open around the country enjoyed a genuine, if brief, renaissance.
“Back to the Drive-In” chronicles that period and the decline that followed. It highlights a handful of drive-ins, some which were closed for years before re-opening, as the nation emerges from the pandemic. Most are Mom and Pop operations with family members and hired help running the theater. A few run multiple locations, but all are trying to figure out how to stay afloat as the mini-boom evaporates.
The film opens with a kaleidoscope of existing outdoor theaters, while early rock-n-roll style music plays in the background (“Goin’ to the Drive-in”).
Writer/director April Wright (“Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story”) takes each of 11 selected theaters through a history, including maintenance issues, prep for the evening’s program, the actual event itself, and the postmortem. This is done through pictures and interviews with the owners and employees as they tell their stories.
In an interview with Todd Garbarini of “CinimaRetro,” Wright said, “I usually got to each drive-in in the afternoons. You would start maybe at three in the afternoon, capturing all their preparation, and then stay until late, usually two in the morning. It was basically almost 12 hours of footage for each one, because I would just get there and be shooting non-stop.”
Many of the snack bars are much like they were decades ago, with familiar fare: popcorn, sodas, boxed candies, hot dogs and hamburgers. Some have updated fare such as nachos, a, open pit bbq, and more. Some feature on-sight bars, and others have live music performances. All to keep the revenue coming.
There are many interesting stories of scavenging equipment from other outdoors that have closed down. This is especially true when maintenance is discussed, since a lot of this equipment is no longer manufactured. For example, many outdoors still use the wired speakers that hang on your car window. When they fail, owners have piles of speakers from closed drive-ins as a source of replacements.
The film concludes with a recap of some of the drive-in featured. Some owners are selling to other operators, others are hanging on. As one white-bearded owner says, “We’re not going anywhere. We’re staying right where we are … Tomorrow is another day.”
If you love movies and movie theaters, and are interested in a film that captures a slice of fading Americana, “Back to the Drive-in” is for you. Who knows: like some of the current owners, you might “get the bug” an open or re-open one of your own.
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