The All-American Beauty of Drive-In Movie Theaters

Todd Klick
·5 min read
Getty
Getty

Our feature film, Followed, which I wrote and helped produce, was supposed to open in over 300 traditional theaters across the country weeks ago. COVID-19, however, put the kibosh on that dream. It was to be my first screenplay to see national distribution, too. When I learned our movie would be released in drive-in theaters instead, it felt like another twist of the blade. I wanted, with all my heart, for audiences to experience our film inside the best theaters with optimum sound. Drive-ins, I thought, would be a second-rate, “lesser” experience.

But then I realized something important I had long forgotten: I fell in love with movies at a drive-in theater. I was 5 years old. My dad, a welder and a truck driver, drove mom, my little sister and me to the Key Drive-In, set in a cornfield on the outskirts of Lebanon, Pennsylvania, not far from the Mennonite farm community where I was raised. I forget which movie played that long-ago night—probably a Disney flick, since that was the only movies my parents approved of—but I do remember the feeling it gave me. It was like experiencing something mystical for the first time, something supernatural. The large images on that massive screen, underneath the vastness of the starry night sky, awed me.

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When the end credits rolled, I begged my parents to please let us stay for the second feature, but mom said my sister and I had to get up early for Sunday School the next morning. So I sat arms crossed on the 3-mile drive home with a grumpy look on my face.

I wanted, no, I needed to see more movies.

When I reached my teenage years, my buddies Barry, Mike, and I would go to the Key Drive-In a couple times a month throughout the summer. We were broke farm kids, so one of us would hide in the trunk of Barry’s used yellow Ford LTD before we joined the long line of cars on the crunchy pebble road leading to the ticket booth, where you paid the “per head” admission price. Pulling into an available inclined space facing the screen, Barry would find the AM radio channel that transmitted the movie’s mono sound, while Mike or I emerged from the trunk. We’d buy hot dogs and hamburgers, lured by the aroma of ketchup, onions and sauerkraut wafting from the nearby concession building, which also served as the projection booth.

On other nights, Barry, Mike, and I would drive past the Key Drive-In on the way to cruise the “Lebanon Loop” in search of girls. I’d see the current movie flickering silently on the Key’s screen in the near distance and loose the thread of our conversation. I envied the families who lived in the five houses facing the drive-in. They could see those giant moving images every night from their porches for free. I thought they were the luckiest people on earth.

The Key Drive-In’s Labor Day “Dusk to Dawn” show was especially exhilarating. Some 500 cars and trucks, packed with teenagers from all over the county, would overflow the outdoor venue for the rowdy end-of-summer bash. Barry and Mike viewed the Dusk to Dawn night as a chance to sip beer and meet lots of girls from the five other high schools in the area. I saw it, though, as an opportunity to see four movies in a row!

One of the saddest days of my youth was when developers bulldozed the Key Drive-In and turned it into a Walmart parking lot. Gone was the giant screen where I saw so many hours of now-classic cinema. Gone was the concession building, and the projector’s dusty, angled beam. Gone were the smells of roasted peanuts and popcorn, and the taste of draft root beer. Gone were the swing sets next to the alfalfa where we’d soar high in-between double features, sneaker-toes pointed toward falling stars. Losing the Key Drive-In felt like a death in the family.

When my nieces and nephews were old enough, I borrowed my dad’s Chevy pickup, and drove my sister’s three oldest kids 21 miles to the Columbia Drive-In, not far from the Susquehanna River. My girlfriend joined us, too. We laid out thick blankets and pillows in the truck bed and watched an animated feature with the sound coming from a boom box we perched on the truck’s roof. My sister had given her kids cash to buy whatever concessions they wanted. Their faces beamed when they returned with my girlfriend, arms full of Sour Patch Kids, Milk Duds, and Junior Mints. They were as wide-eyed as I had been at the night spectacle of lawn chairs, cars, and happy, hypnotized people. Kortne, the second oldest, with her braided blonde hair and innocent hazel eyes, seemed especially transfixed by it all. When the end credits rolled 90 minutes later, she asked me if we could stay and see the second movie. “Yes,” I smiled, “absolutely.”

So, am I cool with my movie showing at drive-in theaters this summer? Yeah, I’m cool with it. More than cool, actually. I’m thrilled.

Todd Klick is an author and screenwriter currently living in Los Angeles. See FOLLOWED at drive-in theaters nationwide June 19.

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