John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John are sitting in a red 1950s convertible under the stars. Giant ice creams march across a giant screen. A giant hot dog dances with a giant bun. He yawns, sliding a surreptitious arm around her neck. She turns away. He moves in, she slaps him and I’m hooked.
My first experience of the all-American drive-in movie was Grease, a world where teens dressed in leather and gingham drove pink Thunderbirds and watched epic romances in glorious Technicolor in the open air. Sound came from speakers clipped to the car window and hamburgers were delivered by girls on roller skates.
The first drive-in movie theater opened on June 6, 1933 in Camden, New Jersey and was an immediate hit in Depression-slumped America. A whole family could pile in the jalopy for the same price as a single cinema ticket. No car? Take the bus and sit in tip-up tin seats and share a soda from the concession stand.
By 1958 there were nearly 5000 drive-ins in America. Today there are just 336 left. The Pickwick, in Burbank, California, used for that scene in Grease, now lies under a shopping mall. In the 1980s, one drive-in closed per day across the US; in the 1990s, it was one per week. Some of my own favourite drive-ins have bitten the dust in the past ten years (I particularly mourn the glorious Mission in San Antonio, currently being redeveloped as a cultural centre, which at least makes a change from the usual supermarkets and housing projects), but it’s not all bad news. Of those 336 remaining theaters, some are brand new; others reopened by children and grandchildren of the baby-boomers who grew up with drive-ins, keen to introduce the experience to the next generation. ‘Retro’ and ‘vintage’ are still relatively small concepts in the States, but nostalgia is big.