Monday, October 11, 2010

The Really Big Screen

It was never as good as we will remember it to be. The features were typically second rate, the sound lousy and the screens dirty. Someone was forever slamming a car door on the way to the bathroom or concession stand. Late arrivals swept their headlights across the screen wiping out the picture altogether. Horns blared as the intertwined limbs of awkward adolescents got caught up with steering wheels and dashboards. Thinking back, I can't remember much about any of the movies I saw. Still, I am going to miss the drive-in.

My wife and I rediscovered the drive-in after our daughter was born. At first we took her to those few regular theaters that allow infants. But even there, with her fast asleep in my arms, other patrons cast disapproving looks our way. “I thought this theater had a no infant policy,” a woman said to us at a matinee of Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You. “Evidently not,” my wife snapped back as we took our seats.

When our daughter turned five months old, she began yapping at the characters on the screen. Our family days at the movies were over, at least for a while. Tickets, parking, and a baby-sitter made a night at the movies a fifty-dollar affair. Without dinner. There just weren't any pictures we wanted to see that badly.

“Let's go to the drive-in,” my wife suggested. That afternoon we drove to the southern edge of San Francisco, to the Geneva Drive-In, to reconnoiter the area, not wanting to get lost near the Cow Palace at night. Even with the sun shining the Geneva looked like a run-down, dangerous dump and was that much gloomier and ominous at night. An old grandstand was on the verge of collapse. The four huge screens didn't seem much sturdier. The stanchions that once held the speakers had been battered so many times by night-time movie goers and day-time flea market patrons that they looked like the teetering crosses of a ghost town cemetery. Still, we became something like regulars.

Simply seeing the screen at the Geneva entailed regularly starting the engine to run the defroster. Even with a clear windshield we still wound up occasionally watching a movie through streaming fog that raced toward the Bay and tormented San Francisco Giants fans at nearby Candlestick Park. The sound, channeled through the radio, came across as though broadcast from the other side of the planet. It wasn't the best way to watch a movie. But then going to the drive-in was never really about going to the movies anyway.

As a kid growing up in the Northeast my widowed mother took my brothers and me to the drive-in fairly often. We even went in the winter as a way of escaping the incipient cabin-fever that slowly built during the long, dark, cold days. I don't recall a single movie I saw with my family, yet those were magical nights.

What could have been more exciting to a six-year old than going out, at night, in the middle of winter, wearing pajamas with feet, to see a movie through falling snow? It was the height of surrealism. (Of course, I wasn't at the drive-in in Fontland, Ontario, when a tornado swept through the theater, blowing the screen to smithereens while Twister was playing. Talk about special effects.)

My mother gave up on the drive-in about the time we all became more interested in what was going on in the cars on either side of ours than on the screen in front of us. “Mom, what are they doing over there?” one of us was sure to ask. She would concoct some vague answer in the Ozzie and Harriet, Donna Reed style of the day. “But why would they want to do that?” one of my almost adolescent brothers was sure to ask.

Twenty years later I knew the answer when the woman I was dating suggested we go to the drive-in. She was a big gal who drove her pick-up like a cowboy. We bounded into the drive-in, she backed into a space, got out a cooler, and unrolled a mattress. The Richard Gere remake of Breathless, said to be one of the worst movies ever made, was playing. I wouldn't know. A couple hours later the second feature was over and it was time to go. Neither one of us saw a frame of either movie.

One might think that with more and more pick-ups and SUVs running around, a drive-in renaissance might be in the offing. But rocketing real estate prices, cable and satellite TV, the VCR, and the demise of teenage virginity and the automobile bench seat have all but killed the drive-in. Thirty years ago there were more than 220 in California alone. That number has dwindled into the low forties and continues to head downward.

Not surprisingly the Geneva closed for good in 1998. Despite the miserable weather and facilities, we had good times at there. I'm sure that when Ben Stiller opened the door for Cameron Diaz in There's Something About Mary every theater in America rolled with laughter. But it couldn't have been the same as watching cars bounce up and down as people howled and smashed their dashboards over the same joke at the drive-in.

One drizzly night at the Geneva an armed guard chased a gang of young men right past our fogged-over windshield as we tried to watch Tomorrow Never Dies.

“Wow,” my wife said after our hearts stopped racing. “You won't see that at the Coronet,” one of San Francisco’s few remaining single screen movie palaces.

Another mildewy evening we went to see Bullworth in which Warren Beatty plays a senator up for reelection. During one scene Beatty winds up in an after-hours club, dancing with Halle Berrie, and rapping “Yo baby, yo baby, yo baby.” From the back seat, our then eighteen-month old daughter, who we thought asleep, joined in in her tiny, high pitched voice. “Yo baby. Yo baby. Yo baby.” For the rest of the evening any time it grew quiet she would start up again. “Yo baby. Yo baby. Yo baby.” We have never laughed louder at the movies.

Some time ago I stumbled across what must have been a great party. Inside one of the piers at the Fort Mason Center in San Francisco, professional organizers had 30 or 40 convertibles parked before a large movie screen. Someone – someone very rich – was going to have a birthday party with a drive-in movie theme. The convertibles were all new. The sound and the projection were sure to be state of the art. No doubt the catering was fabulous. Under cover, there'd be no fog or rain or snow. But I wondered if they could really capture the essence of the drive-in. The awkward walk to the concession stand past cars full of necking strangers. The anticipation of maybe “getting someplace” with one's own date. The juvenile delinquent delight of sneaking friends into the show inside the trunk. The impossible juggling act of trying to watch the movie, comfort the baby and eat popcorn all at the same time. There was probably none of that. Now, in the Bay Area, there are people so rich they can spend thousands to recreate a drive-in even as the real thing disappears. It seems almost undemocratic.

It was about the same time that we last went to the Burlingame, the only San Francisco area drive-in still standing and scheduled for imminent demolition. Our car bottomed out several times as we negotiated the flooded aisles. A naked hot dog suggestively jumped into a waiting bun in the trailer for the concession stand, which commanded us to “Celebrate the Drive-In.” As instructed, we turned our parking lights on and soon a young man appeared out of the thin rain to take our order for pizza and popcorn. On screen, Buzz and Woody ranted their way through Toy Story Two. The anemic sound that came in over the radio was half static. There were exactly three other cars watching the show. We wouldn't have to answer any embarrassing questions that night.

“It's not very romantic,” I said to my wife as the window-wipers beat back and forth, the defroster blasted, and our daughter complained that she couldn't see a thing.

“Let me tell you what's romantic,” my wife said before leaning over to kiss me.

Like I said, I'm going to miss the drive-in.

A version of this story originally appeared in the March 19, 2000 edition of the San Francisco Sunday Examiner Magazine.

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