Drive-In Movie Nostalgia


Today I walked past the old Starlite Drive-in movie theatre site in South El Monte, California which is now a weekend swap meet of all things. The Starlite opened in 1950 and had an 860 car capacity but by 1997 the screen was torn down and its movie days were over. It got me thinking about the old days of going to see a movie at the drive-in back in Australia.

The Starlite Drive-In sign in 1950 and then today in 2015
The Starlite Drive-In sign in 1950 and then today in 2015

Drive-in movies are more or less a lost relic to modern society. A few still exist here and there but more as a novelty (generally all that land was worth much more as real estate property) compared to the 1950’s and 1960’s when the car culture was hitting its stride and drive-ins movies were all the rage. For me, growing up as a kid and teenager in country Victoria in Australia they were often the only way to see a big screen movie.

Drive-In Movie Theatre 1950's style
Drive-In Movie Theatre 1950’s style

I have great memories from the 1970’s and 1980’s of seeing classic movies like Every Which Way But Loose (1978), Superman (1978), The Muppet Movie (1979), Mad Max (1979 – I was snuck in laying on the floor of the car under a blanket as it was R rated and I was just a kid!),  Any Which Way You Can (1980), Heartbreak Ridge (1986), Top Gun (1986), Predator (1987), Batman (1989) and many more at a drive-in. It was always a bit of an adventure packing the family up in the car and heading out for the night (invariably with a number of kids falling asleep during the evening).

Just some of the movies I saw at a drive-in as a kid/teenager
Just some of the movies I saw at a drive-in as a kid/teenager

Your parents would park the car on those raised parking spots (to improve the view of the big screen). You would see people climb out of the boot (trunk for Americans) of the car who had been smuggled in without paying! Then as the sun went down you would hook the speaker box to the window to listen to the movie – I wonder how many people drove off with it still attached? Years later it was kind of boring as you just tuned the car radio in. The radio did sound better than those tinny speaker boxes though!

A uniformed drive-in theater attendant hands a clip-on speaker to the driver of convertible while the car's other passengers watch, New York, early 1950s. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
A uniformed drive-in movie theatre attendant hands a clip-on speaker to the driver of convertible while the car’s other passengers watch, New York, early 1950s. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
The screen was taken down in 1997 at the Starlite drive-in but you can still see the raised car park spots where people once sat in their cars to watch the movies
The screen was taken down in 1997 at the Starlite drive-in but you can still see the raised car park spots where people once sat in their cars to watch the movies

At intermission (remember those?) you would go to the snack bar or there would be a kids playground beneath the big screen. Often you would get a double feature which was great value too. Good times from a more or less lost era!

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