America is good at extinction. There were herds of buffalo the size of Midwestern states, and we nearly annihilated them. There were enough passenger pigeons to eclipse the sun, and we did annihilate them. Around 60 years ago, there were huge swaths of this country given over to a singular proposition: You can do it in your car. The drive-in restaurant. The drive-in dry cleaners. The drive-in liquor store. There was even a drive-in church. In SoCal, of course. And, just as such, there were drive-in movie theaters. Hundreds . . . thousands . . . of drive-in movie theaters across this country. Roughly 80 per state.
Today, in 2017, in the state of Washington (for instance) there are three. And I stumbled across one of them, still in operation, located in the rural Olympic Peninsula. I went to a movie there and, appropriately enough, that movie was Cars 3.
Cars 3 (and this is not going to turn into a film review) is a good movie, and you should go see it. Not just from a gearhead’s perspective, although there’s lots of car related stuff to laugh at and notice, but as a good movie in and of itself. No, it’s not Citizen Kane or 2001, but it is a pretty good movie.
So, there I was, driving – actually, being driven – from a rural area of the Olympic Peninsula to Port Townsend, a town that, when it was founded ten years before the Civil War, was going to be the main city of the Washington Territory. Port Townsend was aiming to be the San Francisco of the Pacific Northwest. And it nearly was, before being usurped and surpassed by both Tacoma and Seattle. Now, Port Townsend is mainly a tourist destination, artist community, and a rather nice place to retire if you do not demand year-round sunny weather. It looks like what San Francisco did 150 years ago. Port Townsend is frozen in time.
We’re driving through the woods, heading toward Port Townsend. It’s a long, straight stretch of two-lane that, given the right car, you’d be really tempted to open it up . . . except for the blind driveways and rough logging tracks that come out of the lofty pine forests at oblique angles with mere feet of visibility. Suddenly there it was. An old, ten-foot by twenty-foot white marquee with the black stick-on letters that simply read:
Drive-In Movie Theater
Cars 3 & Transformers V
Fri. Sat. Sun.
At first I didn’t think much about it. But then the little wheels in my skull went “click-click-click” and I realized both of the movies listed were new movies.
“Is that an operating Drive-in theater?”
“Oh yeah,” she answered. “It’s really fun. They show different movies every weekend, mostly new stuff. We should go.”
“You’re darn right we should go,” was the only response the situation merited!
The drive-in movie theater is called the Wheel-In Motor Movie. It was started by a family in, get this, 1953! The Grand Prix World Championship was only three-years-old at that time. Juan Manuel Fangio was a rookie driver. Stirling Moss hadn’t even started driving. The Wheel-In Motor Movie even pre-dates fins on Cadillacs and is a contemporary invention of the Shoebox Ford. And this place is still going. It’s still showing movies – that you can enjoy from the comfort of your own car – every summer. Perfect!
After you drive down a dirt two-lane cut through 100-foot tall fir trees, you come to the ticket office overseen by a nice, friendly gray-haired woman. She tells you what two movies are playing that night, the price (as I recall, a whopping $8.00 per person), takes your money (cards accepted), and tells you the radio frequency to tune to for the movie, should you choose to forgo the 60-year-old, window-hanger “Hi-Fi” speaker.
She says “thank you,” and you drive on for another couple hundred yards, through the trees, and into the drive-in theater itself.
Wide Open Spaces
The parking area is large and nicely terraced for easy viewing. At the far end is a screen roughly the size of a tennis court. This screen, as it turns out, is brand new. The Wheel-In Motor Movie recently had to upgrade to a digital projection system and got a new screen to go along with it. The new screen sits on a gantry/scaffold-like, lattice-work structure made of locally sourced wood that looks like it could hold up a moon rocket.
Wood is all over the place around here. And so are extremely skilled carpenters. You think they were going to use steel I-beams?
Between us and the screen lies a no-man’s-land about the size of a football field. This area is awash with dozens of kids all screaming and throwing balls and doing cartwheels and scuttling and howling and running around like crazed maniacs. In other words, acting like a bunch of kids in a big open space before an event.
Around the perimeter stand those who I can only assume are the grownups responsible for these kids. It’s an easy assumption to make, since 90% of them have looks of deep satisfaction on their faces. It’s a look that any and all parents of six-year-olds will instantly recognize; a look that says, “they will sleep like cute little rocks tonight, and finally, finally, I can get a good night’s sleep.”
We begin to wander around, taking in the fading twilight and arriving cars. Everybody seems happy. Some people calmly sit in their cars, others strategize their plan for the night’s viewing. Blankets and comforters and pillows are produced, nests are made, serious discussions about who gets to sit where ensue: “Nuh-uh! Calling shotgun does not mean you get shotgun for the movie too, Travis!!”
As we wander up the gently sloping hill toward the back of the drive-in lot, I see a young couple and realize they are true professionals. Their (most likely his) bright yellow Ford pickup is parked backwards. Crammed laterally into the truck bed is a brown love seat most likely just liberated from their house. The young couple sit high up and in living room comfort, cuddled under a purple comforter. This, when I was in high school, was the preferred way to see a movie at the drive-in. Okay, actually, the really preferred way was in a car with steamed up windows and that cute girl from chemistry class, but let’s not get into that.
Appetites & Audio Equipment
At the very back of the drive-in sits the snack bar and projector house. Entering into the snack bar, I get a strange sense of déjà vu. It all seems so familiar, apart from the glassed-off projector. And then I realize this is just like literally every other snack bar I’ve ever seen at a drive-in movie theater, race track, or other facility where the center of gravity is something that sits on wheels.
The food, amazingly, doesn’t look all that bad. Burgers, fries, that sort of thing, all made on site, and one at a time. None of this pre-packaged stuff made in a factory four states away and driven in by refrigerator truck every six weeks. I guarantee you these burgers are better than anything you’ll ever have in a chain restaurant.
On one end of the snack bar building sits the projector in a glassed-off room. The projector itself is about the size of a washer/dryer combo with a protuberant lens to give it a howitzeresque feel. It can, assumedly, throw photons down-range at such a rate that it has its own, dedicated air conditioning plant about the size of a washer/dryer combo. On the wall behind sits a 50s vintage rack mount cabinet. Up top is a low wattage FM transmitter unit, very modern and high tech, and at the bottom of the rack sits the DAs (distribution amps, an old style 70 volt system) and the PA amp. The PA amp is a massive tube and transformer unit that no doubt dates back to the original install. It looks like it has the power of an arc welder and weighs close to a V8 block and/or boat anchor.
Against the back wall sits a line of battered old shelves packed with now-unneeded splicing equipment, 35mm film reels, and a couple dozen extra window-hanger in-car speakers. These are for those that commit the primary and most mortal of drive-in movie sins: driving away with the speaker STILL HANGING ON YOUR WINDOW!!!! Don’t ever do that. You’ll look like a real stupe in front of your date and be the butt of all jokes in third period.
The King’s Speech
As dusk gathers, we return to our car. We briefly turn on the radio (they’re playing the soundtrack from the first Guardians of The Galaxy) but we change our minds and opt for the window-hanger speaker. It has the sound quality of a Stasi listening device found in the American Embassy in Berlin, circa 1947. It is, in many ways, the cherry on top.
Kids are ushered back to their cars, some begging for one last toss of the Frisbee, one more touchdown run. Over the speakers comes the dulcet tones of the theater owner. I think it’s Dick Wiley himself, but it might be his son. And you can tell this is His Stage. This is what he lives for, these next few minutes as he patiently, gently, fatherly tells you The Rules and Mores of the Wheel-In Motor Movie. His spiel is rambling, unfocused, overly-long, and perfect. For him, it’s his St. Crispin’s Day Speech. The mic crackles off, the lights go out, and the movie starts (no previews at the Wheel-In Motor Movie, no sir).
I look over and see her blue eyes shining and a huge smile spread across her face. “This is going to be great,” she says without a hint of irony. And she’s right as can be. If you get the chance and there’s a drive-in movie theater near you, go! For a gearhead, it is part of our now-vanishing culture. The part where the car was to be the undisputed king. Where thoughts like making cars without tail fins made absolutely no sense. Sadly, and probably all too soon, these great drive-in theaters will go the way of the buffalo and passenger pigeon.
Tony Borroz has spent his entire life racing antique and sports cars. He means well, even if he has a bias toward lighter, agile cars rather than big engine muscle cars or family sedans.