Drive-Ins, Near Death, Arise from the Weeds

Author: George P. Blumberg

Source: New York Times, 2002

It was Saturday night, and Ed Gudinas could have been in Brockton, Mass., on a cushy couch, watching a movie on his large-screen home theater with surround sound. Instead, he was sitting in a camp chair on an open field, swatting the occasional mosquito and watching "Men in Black 2," the first half of a double feature on a 50-by-110-foot screen at a drive-in more than 100 miles from home.

That he is still able to find a drive-in is itself remarkable. By 1990, most of the 4,063 that dotted the nation at the industry's height in 1958 were out of business. Where moviegoers by the hundreds had once screamed at "Creature From the Black Lagoon," only a few cars would be scattered about a weed-choked lot as X-rated gyrations filled the screen. Even love-struck teenage couples, a loyal clientele for decades, had drifted away.

Yet something of a renaissance may be under way. A hardy 430 drive-ins are operating across 47 states, according to the United Drive-In Theater Owners Association. In the 1990's, 15 new drive-ins were built, and 39 old ones were reopened.

Mr. Gudinas, 50, and his son, Adam, 24, were seated behind their Dodge van, in which they had made the trip to the Mansfield Drive-In in Connecticut. The van's rear faced the screen, and the open doors revealed a cooler of sodas and sandwiches.

The Gudinases are technology sophisticates whose business is installing electronic security equipment. Their van is a rolling tribute to electronics, including an Audiovox color TV with a VCR, a high-powered stereo and an X-Box DVD system. But here they were, watching a movie the way it was done on the cheap in the 1950's. Why?

Of course, there are the memories. Adam Gudinas recalls his parents' smuggling him in under a blanket at the Mansfield when they lived nearby — not as an economy measure but more for the traditional drive-in sport of it.

But nostalgia isn't the whole story. The drive-ins that succeed in 2002 have been updated to please 21st-century audiences. Today's typical drive-in shows a double feature, and many have several screens. The audio is broadcast in stereo over the vehicles' FM radios or personal players. The movies are suitable for children.

"We cater to a family-oriented experience and always have one of our screens G-rated, the others PG-13," said Michael Jungden, 54, owner of the Mansfield. It has three screens, each serving about 300 cars. "Business is better than ever," Mr. Jungden said. On the night the Gudinases visited, the drive-in was also showing "Spy Kids 2."

The price is $7 for adults and $4 for children 4 to 11. On Wednesdays, $13 admits everyone in a carload. And there's no baby sitter to pay — the children can come along and go to sleep on the back seat.

There is a snack bar, but many patrons bring their own refreshments. Some like to tailgate. Near the Gudinases' back-of-the-van setup, a big four-door Chevrolet pickup pulled into a spot, the bed facing the screen. With quick precision, four adults and three children converted the pickup into stadium seating, with small spectator chairs for children on the tailgate and larger chairs for the adults behind them. They pulled sodas from their cooler and grabbed slices of a pizza they had brought along. "It's like a community," said Kristie Leonard, one of the adults in the party.

And it feels safe. "This is not like walking around a mall parking lot at night," she said.

Safety is also a concern for Juli Czajkowski, 38, and her husband, David, 41, of Peoria, Ariz., a Phoenix suburb, who frequent the nine-screen Glendale Nine drive-in near their home. "This may sound silly," Ms. Czajkowski said, "but since Sept. 11, we feel safer at a drive-in than at a mall or a closed cineplex building."

In Berlinsville, Pa., 11 miles north of Allentown, Becky's Drive-In carries on with just a single screen, as it has since 1946, when it was started by the father of the current owners, Cindy Depee, 48, and her brothers and sister. Its clientele is devoted. Michael Carroll, 38, and his wife, Jackie, 31, of Mendham, N.J., make a 140-mile round trip to Becky's each week.

"We're not nostalgia hunters," Mr. Carroll said. "It's just a great way to see a movie." He added that the French fries weren't frozen and "the employees dress in theme costumes, including for "Men in Black" and "George of the Jungle."

Becky Norris, 21, of Belvidere, N.J., and her fiancé, Shawn Stewart, 20, go to Becky's once a week. "Under the sky you stretch out, or people can smoke in their cars or talk and not bother anyone," Ms. Norris said. "The sound is great through the car stereo, and little kids can cry and not disturb anyone." They are trying to get their friends to go to the drive-in, too.

"Lots of people," she said, "don't know it's just not a place to go and make out anymore."

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