I don’t remember how we met that night. I was in the band playing at the club. We were called The Mystery Machine—named after the van in Scooby Doo—and we specialized in re-creating the 1960s. More precisely: the summer of 1966. We were very specific. Your shirt had to have the correct kind of collar or the other guys would give you a hard time.
What I liked about the neo-’60s scene most of all was playing that music, trying to sound like The Byrds or Love or The Beau Brummels. The other thing I liked was Terri, the pretty golden-haired girl who appeared in my life through a cloud of clove cigarette smoke that night at our L.A. show. Maybe I liked her more than the music.
She lived in an apartment in Costa Mesa with her mother, father and one of her two sisters. Her parents fought constantly. They were working class, country, from Middle America somewhere. They’d soon be divorced.
They didn’t mind that their teenage daughter’s teenage boyfriend stayed in their apartment every weekend while they were out honky-tonking, making each other jealous over their respective flirtations. At least someone was paying attention to her.
And when they were home, Terri and I seemed to be in the way of their drama. Sometimes to get rid of us, Terri’s dad would toss me the keys to his van. In retrospect, that was the real Mystery Machine: a big, red Chevy with hot-rod wheels.
We took it to the drive-in.
I don’t remember any of the movies. I’m not sure we even opened the back doors of the van except to come up for air once in a while.
If one were to make a case for the revival of drive-in movie theaters, acknowledging their role in the facilitation of teenage sexual exploration would probably not be the best way to sell them to the general public. Probably better to highlight their history as the premier form of mid-20thcentury American auto-culture entertainment, as a fun-for-the-family alternative to the aging indoor movie palaces.
But we all know the limits of what you can accomplish in the back row of a movie theater and how that played into the popularity of the drive-in. The ability to transform automobile into love den was an undeniable appeal of the drive-in. That rare opportunity for teenagers to carve out a private sphere, along with the fairly unrestrained, unconfined anarchy of a vast, darkened parking lot—the transgressive nature of the drive-in—led to the mushrooming of around 4,000 drive-ins in the U.S. at the height of the craze in the mid-1950s. We’ve now dwindled down to less than 400 across the entire country.
San Diego was once home to legions of them, all gone now—with two exceptions. They had names that evoke an era of romanticized, wide-open spaces and unrestrained vistas: Midway, Campus, Frontier, Big Sky, Del Mar, Harbor, Rancho, Aero and so forth.
Once upon a time, the big romance of the drive-in—the freedom to be the lead in your own little drama, the belief in the potential of the American dream to extend to everybody—dominated the landscape. You’d take control of the movie at the drive-in: you could turn down the sound, talk back, ignore, comment, interact, let the images just wash over you and make them the backdrop of your own romance. The drive-in embodied the notion that the dreams on the big screen belonged to you and everyone around you, too.
Now those dream-spaces have been replaced with reality-boxes: Walmarts and other gargantuan consumption units, where your duty is to consume and no longer to dream.
I never completely stopped pretending it’s the 1960s. There was a sweet spot where the social contract protected by the greatest generation—of conformity and civility—coexisted, if tenuously, with the new values of inclusion, experimentation and celebration of life and its pleasures. It was after the extreme racism and paranoia of the 1950s and before the bloated excess of the 1970s. I’m not romanticizing: The war was horrible, the human-rights struggles fought against inconceivable injustices—we had a long way to go and still do.
But the music was transcendent and the landscape full of beauty. And those struggles were waged by people who wanted some of those drive-in dreams to come true. We need collective dreams that we can help shape if we are to coexist.
San Diego still has two active drive-ins that can evoke that era for you and your main squeeze tonight, as long as you don’t drive a little Smart car— the Santee and the South Bay. You can visit their websites—santeedriveintheatre.com and southbaydrivein.com—for movie information, but, really, does it matter what the movie is?