Return of the Drive-In Movie

Coming soon to a city near you?

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ELM ROAD TRIPLE DRIVE-IN THEATRE 1895 Elm Rd. NE Warren, Ohio 44483. The Elm Road Drive-In Theatre was founded in 1950 by Stephen Hreno and wife, Mary and is now one of less than 400 remaining drive-in theaters in the U.S. On August 3, 1950, the drive-in opened its doors as a then typical single screen, outdoor movie theater. When the business passed to Steve’s son Robert in the ‘70’s, he first added a second screen in 1979. Then came FM stereo through the car radio and in 2005, a third big screen was added. (photo: Jack Pearce)

Turn, Turn, Turn

If you wait around long enough, it is said, everything eventually comes back into fashion.

Given the recent meat shortages, vegan food bloggers and plant-based diet cookbook authors may be all the rage today, but they aren’t exactly new.

The seminal vegetarian cookbook Ten Talents was written by a Seventh Day Adventist in 1968 and some strictly vegetarian food traditions of Southern India have been in observance for thousands of years.

Everything old is new again. One case in point, the milkman.

The “milkman” was, on a time, someone paid by the local dairy or grocery distributor to deliver bottles of milk to a regular route of customers on a semi-daily or weekly basis.

The milkman worked delivering milk from 1785 right up until the 1960’s. Then he was gone.

In with the grocery store, out with the milkman. In with the Wal-Mart, out with the grocery store. In with Amazon, out with the Wal-Mart. And suddenly, and most unexpectedly, the milkman made something of an unlikely comeback.

Now, grocery delivery people are quintessential members of the workforce once again. They dispense to doorsteps everything from bottles of farm-fresh milk from an organic, grass-fed, free-range dairy within 20-miles of your house; to toilet tissue- if you can find it.

During coronavirus, grocery delivery people have probably saved lives; providing the most vulnerable members of society sheltering at home with the opportunity to avoid crowded grocery stores- and with them the increased potential for illness and infection.

There are perhaps some things that will never come back into fashion. Then again, considering parachute pants made a brief comeback, anything is possible.

John Travolta, after his rocket to fame in late-Seventies movies like “Grease” and “Saturday Night Fever”, fell out of fashion for a good many years in the decades that followed. Travolta was relegated to Hollywood obscurity- reduced to doing sequels of “Look Who’s Talking” for a pittance- when a minor role in Quentin Tarantino’s cult hit “Pulp Fiction” resurrected John Travolta’s career in primetime.

As Travolta himself once said: “If you don’t believe something is possible, repeat to yourself, over and over: ‘John Travolta is back; John Travolta is back.’”

Yet there are a good many bygone things America may not see again, certain jobs being one of them.

In the early days of bowling alleys, there were no fancy machines to reset the pins after every strike or spare. It was the occupation of a real-life human being to jump down onto the lane and quickly reset the pins between bowls.

It was once thought that American manufacturing would never make a comeback. Cheap labor markets overseas, where corporations could take advantage of the lack of fair labor laws and low-regulatory environments to cut production costs and ramp up production were thought to have killed American manufacturing forever.

In the wake of Covid-19, and most especially in light of how an over-dependence on Chinese supply lines for critical medical supplies complicated the U.S. response to the outbreak, American manufacturing might be making a comeback.

Another great American institution making a surprising comeback might be the drive-in movie.

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Drive-in. May 27, 2007. (photo: Thomas Hawk)

Once drive-in movies were all the rage.

Huge screens would broadcast two or even three movies. Cars would start to arrive as soon as dusk started to fall, packed with families opting for fun-filled G-rated fun or carfuls of teenagers anxious to see the latest monster movie or action flick.

Aside from the occasional trip to the snack-stand, something encouraged by cartoons of hot-dogs dancing through pouring rains of candy, and the rest-room, people attending drive-in movies never left the safety of their cars.

A rudimentary speaker perched in the car window, or later, a car radio tuned to the movie soundtrack, was all movie-goers needed for a night of quality entertainment.

As time went by, technology made the drive-in movie obsolete.

Audiences wanted Dolby Surround Sound (TM); movie directors wanted theater-goers to experience new, improved sound effects. The quality of movies improved. Drive-in movies screens, often grainy and far-away, couldn’t compete with luxe new theaters with surround sound, HD screens, full-service bars and dining options.

And so that once-great American institution of the drive-in movie theater faded away. Kids who watched E.T. at the drive-in watched Jurassic Park in all its CGI glory in plush seats that reclined, with sound effects so real it felt like a Tyrannosaurus Rex was really bearing down on them.

Now, of course, something totally unexpected has happened. Movie-goers might be a bit more concerned with what might be lingering on the theater seat in front of them, who might be coughing in the next row, and what that sticky stuff is beneath their feet.

Movie audiences could again be willing to stay in the safety of their own cars. It is an experience almost made for social distancing.

And a great movie experienced outside, under the stars, might be just the ticket.

(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)

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