The drive-in theater was a Saturday-night staple for families wanting some wholesome fun and teenagers looking to get to second base in back seats during the 1960s. When that 100-foot screen lit up with the images of Hollywood stars and dancing hot dogs, it became more than a night at the movies. With everyone in their Chevys and Fords, it became an American pastime.
In San Diego, we can still get a bit of that nostalgic fun. According to the San Diego History Center, there were 19 drive-ins located throughout the county in the 1960s, the first one—the Midway Drive-In, on Midway Drive and Sports Arena Boulevard—having opened during World War II. Only two are left: the Santee Drive-In Theatre and South Bay Drive-In Theatre in Nestor, where I spent a recent Monday night.
It had been almost 20 years since I visited that drive-in. My family—aunts, cousins and beloved pets included—would pile into station wagons with blankets and pillows to catch some early-’90s cinematic masterpieces, like Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. Back then, the drive-in was a raucous experience that turned the boring thing that took us to school into a funhouse. Popcorn flew everywhere, and we laughed like sugar-fueled hyenas at the hijinks on the screen.
Nowadays, the South Bay Drive-In, which opened in 1958, is a bit run down, but it still offers old-school good times on a warm summer night.
Kip Sherer, co-creator of Drive-ins.com, a website that compiles history and information on drive-ins around the world, says part of the allure is the “communal experience.”
“In the movie theater, you’re expected to stay quiet,” he adds. “At the drive-in you can talk, joke about the movie, go to the snack bar and meet other people.”
Frank Huttinger, chairman and CEO of De Anza Land and Leisure Corp., which owns four Southern California drive-ins, including the South Bay, says it’s low prices that keep drive-ins in business. At South Bay, tickets are $7 for adults and $1 for kids between 5 and 9 years old for two movies. The concessions are reasonably priced, as well. My giant plate of cheese-soaked nachos and medium Coke was $7.
During my jaunt, I found myself having a great night, just as I did back in those old station-wagon days. I’m one who wishes the worst kind of fate on those who dare make noise at the movies. People who not only let their cell phone ring, but do the unimaginable by actually answering it during a movie, should be stoned with early-2000s Nokia phones. But at the drive-in, in the comfort of my own Chevy, my date and I heckled the movie with gusto. It was our own little Mystery Science Theatre 3000. Granted, it was the cheesy Jason Statham action flick Safe, producing these gems in dialogue: “We were kings, you son of a bitch! Now we’re just a bunch of serfs!” and “I’m gonna keep him like a pet. A badly treated pet. And then I’m gonna do things to him that will make me ashamed to look in the mirror.” Boisterous snark was inevitable, and it was liberating for a tightly wound noise Nazi like me to let loose.
Sherer says that drive-in season officially begins on June 6, which is known as Hollingshead Day, after Richard Hollingshead, who invented drive-in cinemas in 1933. Hit the snack shack for some artery-clogging grub and feel free to be as loud as you want. The personal peanut gallery is wide open.