The Case of the Disappearing Drive-In

When I think of a drive-in movie theater, I used to often associate the image with the 1950’s and 60’s. Perhaps I’d mentally throw in a scene of a young couple watching The Blob while the young varsity jacket-wearing student would try and steal a kiss from his date. Such establishments serve as significant nostalgia for many in the U.S. The truth is, many of these have long since closed, going the way of the dodo. Heck, you’d have a better chance of finding a waitress on roller skates today than you would a drive-in movie theater.

In my case, there has been one in uninterrupted operation practically in my backyard. About 30 minutes west of Cleveland, Ohio is the unassuming city of North Ridgeville. Other than actor Martin Mull hailing from here, there really isn’t any other connection to film industry, unless you count one of the last remaining drive-in theaters in the country, the Aut-O-Rama.

Located right along the Ohio Turnpike, this double-screen gravel lot has been attracting customers for decades, defying time and holding its own. For $10 per person (12 and over) and $5 for kids ages 4-11, you really cannot argue against the value of catching a double feature. After living in North Ridgeville for about 27 years, I figured it was time to finally go. So, it was earlier this month that my sister, my brother-in-law and myself headed on out to the Aut-O-Rama to catch Toy Story 4 which was followed by the live action Aladdin.

Gone is the concept of a date-only environment. The sea of vehicles that filled the acres upon acres of the gravel lot were packed with families. The concession area was a walk-in building the size of a small fast food establishment with everything on the menu from your standard popcorn to fried pickles and bacon cheeseburgers. In my own little world of lacking patience, I couldn’t wait to get my popcorn and get out, heading back to my sister’s SUV. That was one mass gathering of kids and adolescents that were too numerous for my comfort level.

With the corded speakers you rest on your car doors long gone, patrons are given the option of a couple of radio stations to turn your dial to in order to get the film’s sound. So far, I wasn’t feeling the vibe. The sound was limited to your car’s speaker system. There were tiny humans everywhere and as the sun began to set and the film started, random vehicle headlights seemed to turn on and off for no apparent reason at times. Distraction is the name of the game here.

It felt like many of those in attendance didn’t even see the movie, instead milling about as they ran into friends and classmates during their summer break. An occasional person would exit and enter their vehicle causing their interior dome light to turn on. My sister’s car turned off at one point cutting the sound. And lastly, seeing as so many people today have crossover and SUV’s, that is what dotted the landscape at the drive-in. It seemed common practice to have the rear of your vehicle face the screen with the rear hatch up. The problem with that is those in the row behind them had a bottom portion of the screen blocked by the raised rear hatch. It was not nostalgic. It was a cinephile’s nightmare.

Good God in Heaven I was not feeling the “how cool is this” environment of the drive-in. It was like camping with a leak in your tent. You went out with an open mind to have fun, but you soon realize this is definitely not your scene. It was something that definitely caters more to the tastes of the casual movie goer. Oh, and no, we didn’t stay for Aladdin.

Some people go to see movies. It is likely safe to say every writer on this site goes to experience them. I look for story free from outside distractions.  I want the brilliant clarity on the screen accompanied by the incredible experience of surround sound. I also would like to be closer than a quarter mile from the screen. I don’t want casual. I want spectacular.

For those that enjoy the experience, more power to you. I hope your local drive-in theater, where you are, stays in business for years to come. There is no denying, however, that these entertainment locales have largely dissipated from coast to coast because their relevancy is almost non-existent. Surround sound is a thing people want. High resolution is an element people desire. You cannot get this at the drive-in, and like an investor on Shark Tank would say, “For that reason, I’m out.”

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