The Lost Language of Drive-ins

Ariving home from my family’s vacation week in Truro, I sensed something was wrong. Not that anyone was complaining. My children were snug in the backseat, the elder cocooned between the earphones of her Walkman, the younger lost in the pages of Something Queer in the Cafeteria. They did not seem to mind that a drive home from a week at the beach was simply that–time spent virtually outside of time–or that the landscape seemed as vacant as the hours themselves–trees and Adopt-a-Highway signs and other signs telling us (meaninglessly, in our case) how many miles to Wrentham or Raynham or Otis. What, indeed, could the names of any of these towns mean to my children, who live in Northampton and who visit their grandparents in Boston and who, occasionally, spend weeks at the Cape? Massachusetts, like many states, has become a landscape in which one travels between meaningful points, treating the rest like terra incognita.

It didn’t used to be so. Driving home, 40 years ago, from weeks with my parents at Swift’s Beach in Wareham, I got to know the landscape of Massachusetts–got to fall in love with it, in fact–through a series of evocative punctuation marks at the side of the road. Lorenzo’s Restaurant, located just off Route 24, the old route to the Cape, was our regular midway refreshment spot. Like every roadside restaurant in the days before the chains took off, Lorenzo’s had its own distinctive character. Duplicated nowhere else, it belonged entirely to the plot of land on which it stood, and helped define that plot of land, just as the Moonbeam Restaurant once helped articulate the very greenness of Green Harbor, as Shoppers World once gave meek, inconsiderable Framingham an air of burgeoning sophistication. But nothing marked out place in those days as distinctly as drive-in theaters did. Though my sphere of activity as a boy was largely confined to Waltham and Wareham, I knew Avon and Dedham and Kingston as well. I knew Braintree and the V.F.W. Parkway, though there is no good reason I should have, save for the fact that in each of these places existed a large white roadside rectangle. Look out the window at night and you might see Kim Novak dancing with William Holden at the Labor Day picnic, or Gregory Peck about to harpoon a whale. To pass such images on one’s way home, along with the blazing marquee, was to have the landscape set off, defined, made, perversely, more real by the presence of a dream.

The landscape was set off by a dreamy roadside rectangle.

With the disappearance of drive-ins, so has a certain dreaminess gone out of a child’s potential apprehension of the territory he is passing through. The names of the old drive-ins alone struck something in my 8-year-old soul, some hint of a buried Arcadia lying just beyond the highway markers: Blue Hills, Neponset, Fresh Pond. Such names can still work magic on me: On a trip West a few years ago with my wife and children, I insisted we stop at the Big Sky Drive-in to see a movie none of us really wanted to see, only because the words Big Sky thrilled me so much.

I am accused by friends of being sentimental about drive-ins. Or, more accurately, sentimental about their demise. The first drive-in opened in 1933, but the drive-in age really began in the late ’40s, and peaked in 1958, when there were 4,000 drive-ins in the U.S. (Massachusetts had 86 of them.) The national figure today is 830, and probably dropping as we speak. There are less than a dozen left in Massachusetts, depending on how many reopen this year, and those that survive are scattered in places like Shrewsbury and Northfield. On Cape Cod, there is one lone survivor in Wellfleet. Gone are the suburban Boston mainstays–the Natick, which in the early ’60s stayed open winters with the questionable lure of “in-car heaters.” Gone also are the Dedham and Revere, the Avon, the Neponset, the Blue Hills, and the Fresh Pond, where I used to insist I be taken every birthday, and where I remember vomiting, out of sheer, heart-sickening fright, during the first 10 minutes of Vertigo. A miserable night for my parents, no doubt, but still a memory I treasure.

Gone with them is something I’ll call “drive-in culture,” an unrecapturable sense of a place existing so that certain important things can happen which cannot happen, not in the same way (and don’t let anybody tell you different) anywhere else. In the movie Grease, the character “Rizzo” and her boyfriend “Kenickie” go “all the way” for the first time while parked at a drive-in, and Grease didn’t choose that location randomly. Drive-ins were places to go all the way, at least to neck, to neck seriously, while somewhere vaguely overhead a movie played. To enter such places, to drive through the gates, to select one’s place and lift the scratchy, frequently defective speakers onto one’s window was to enter into a kind of highly charged ritual: There might be children in pajamas in the next car, or there might be a baby on its way to being conceived. It was entirely unlike stepping into a multiplex and trying to sit as far from one’s nearest neighbor as possible. The presence of cars gave us all the separation we needed. It was, in its own way, less like going to the movies than like going to church.

As if to underscore this, a semi-famous postcard exists. Pictured at a drive-in somewhere in the heartland, Charlton Heston as Moses lifts his arms to call his flock to attention. Laid out before Heston’s majestic image is a herd of ’50s automobiles, burnished, pastel, at attention. The captured image is iconic and surrealistic both; there’s worship going on there, certainly, though not of Moses’ God. Drive-ins in their heyday allowed us to exercise our worship of the ’50s deities: movies, sex, cars.

I began this, however, to bemoan not the loss of drive-ins as a religious force but their loss to the landscape, and that’s real and important enough. In part because I cannot understand why we, as a culture, have so willingly chosen to jettison such a valuable chunk of our history, and in part because the uses to which the old drive-in acreage have been put seem to me so deeply unimaginative (where the old Natick Drive-in once stood, there is now a mall), I find myself, more often in my 40s, arresting time so that I can rearrange the landscape, bring it back to where it once was. I cannot, for instance, take the exit off 128 toward Wingaersheek Beach without activating an odd little nostalgic reflex. The marquee for the Gloucester Drive-in has been torn down for decades, as has the drive-in itself, but as I pass the spot where the marquee once stood, I restore it to where it existed on a summer day in 1958. In my mind, the sign reads, “J. Gavin in ‘A Time to Live and a Time to Die’.” I never actually saw that movie, but I love the fact that someone did, that it was there to be seen, an invitation made to salty lovers at the end of a day at the beach.

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I have another memory, almost certainly apocryphal, of returning home from Swift’s Beach in that same year, 1958, and passing the Blue Hills Drive-in, where the marquee read: “K. Douglas & T. Curtis in ‘The Vikings’.” My father, as I remember this, surprised us all by saying, “Let’s go in.” The reason I believe this to be apocryphal is because I cannot now imagine a man returning from a week at the beach, with three kids and a carload of sandy luggage, stopping to prolong the journey for three or four hours just to see The Vikings. I think, instead, that I wanted that moment so much that I made it real for myself. Or is it possible that sitting there in the back seat, an absurdly sensitive lad, I felt my father’s unstated desire?

If so, it conjoins nicely with my own desire–that which took us all, mid-country, to the Big Sky, and that which compels me to force my family each summer to attend the Wellfleet Drive-in, that last glorious holdout against all that is becoming undreamy about the Cape. We do not really enjoy these excursions, perhaps me least of all. It is uncomfortable, the speakers aren’t loud enough, people’s car alarms are always going off. Drive-ins, as most of us know, aren’t really so much fun to go to. But their purpose was always larger than mere fun. Read Lolita and you’ll come to understand, as perhaps only a foreigner can make us understand, that once upon a time American commerce shaped the landscape in a way that did not despoil but somehow, miraculously, accentuated the spirit of place. Just as certain Native Americans once prayed to the spirit of the departed deer they were about to eat, so the names of drive-ins, dead and living (Big Sky, Red Rock) suggest a certain fealty to what has been blasted away in order to make room for them. My father, then, turning into the Blue Hills Drive-in 40 years ago, wanted, if only in my imagination, to linger in the Blue Hills, to apprehend the Blue Hills, to worship there in a way my children, walled away within their separate surrounds, are no more being invited to do.

Anthony Giardina’s collection of stories, The Country of Marriage (Random House), was published this year.