Nostalgia to necessity: Drive-in theaters make movie-going safe again

In the 1950s, Americans tired of the distractions of their living room TV and ached to escape their homes. They took to their preferred mode of transportation — the automobile — and headed out to a vaguely communal and altogether novel entertainment: the drive-in movie.

Bastion of American car culture and B-movie paradise, the drive-in was a chance to experience a super-sized film from the comfort of your car — in your jammies, if you so desired — under a star-flecked sky. The drive-in combined core, sacred tenets of the American way of life: personal freedom; close, but not too close proximity to the great outdoors; high calorie snacks; cars; comfort; casual clothing; and movies, of course.

Today, Americans are also anxious to escape the increasing confinement of their living rooms. Again, cars and driving have become the agents of our freedom as Americans are flocking to the drive-in once more. Even Walmart is getting in on the trend, turning 160 of its store parking lots into pop-up drive-ins from August through October. Details including locations have yet to be announced.

Movies have always functioned as a balm against great cultural and economic forces in American life. During the Great Depression, musicals and light comedies shown in opulent movie palaces provided escape from grim reality.

Thanks to an increasing number of streaming services, TV shows and movies have similarly helped Americans to forget the ugly reality of 130,000 deaths and counting from coronavirus, mass unemployment and seriously curtailed lives. But when you want to watch a movie and safely leave your home, nothing beats the naturally socially distanced phenomenon of the drive-in.

Georgia once boasted 130 drive-ins during the phenomenon’s heyday in the ’50s. Today five remain. The only one in the metro area is the circa 1949 Starlight Drive-in on Moreland Avenue.

During the July 4 weekend, a screening of the horror film “Relic” at the Starlight swarmed with families and couples. The smell of pot wafted through the air as moviegoers suffering under months of quarantine spent time with their fellow Atlantans, albeit tucked away in their individual vehicles. Many in the crowd appeared to be new to the drive-in concept, because of their confusion about some basic bylaws. Social distancing rules were broken again and again as audience members left their own cars to lean in and ask fellow moviegoers to turn off headlights that were bleaching out the movie screen or shining into other cars.

But thanks to an entrepreneurial local, the Starlight is no longer the only drive-in game in town. The Plaza Theatre on Ponce de Leon Avenue has turned its rear parking into a 40-space drive-in lot featuring films projected onto a 20-foot wide screen tethered to a brick wall. Sound is piped into cars through a synchronized FM radio station. Two miles away, the Plaza has a second drive-in at Dad’s Garage Theatre Company, featuring 53 spaces.

To maintain social distance, tickets are sold online, check-in is contact-less, parking spaces are assigned in advance, and the staff wears face masks. Food can be ordered online and delivered to your car from Southern Belle, which shares a strip mall with the Plaza. Dishes include atypical fare such as Korean barbecue sandwiches and smoked duck nachos.

Film historians like to invoke the analogy of church to describe the communal, inspirational experience of watching a movie with a group of strangers. That analogy felt apropos during a recent screening of the documentary “John Lewis: Good Trouble.”

Our Subaru backseat filled with bags of Trader Joe’s snacks, my family sat on a balmy Thursday night in the small drive-in parking lot behind the historic Ponce de Leon theater. The Plaza radio station played vintage commercials as an atmospheric preamble to the film.

While communing with our fellow Atlantans, we watched the premiere of a film about the troubled history of race in America and about the local hero and congressman, a man almost everyone in the city seems to have met or shaken hands with in Atlanta.

It was the most fun my poor 19-year-old son has had lately, trapped in quarantine with his parents during an adventure-starved gap year before college. His eyes were bright with the excitement of it all. We were all eager for a distraction. Quarantine has taken a toll on us. Our social lives are charred embers, our sense of normalcy utterly altered. I’ve lost my mother, the woman who introduced me to my love of movies, and my son will soon leave for Chicago as colleges attempt to reopen.

But there have been subtle positives, too, like the feeling that Atlanta itself has become an extension of our quarantine bubble, that the city and its inventive arts community, its theater and restaurant owners, its elected officials and its citizens, will figure out a way to get us through this mess. Watching a film about John Lewis and the city’s struggle for social justice — past and present — alongside other residents, I felt reassured to live in a place with like-minded souls, watching the world unfold through our windshields.

“The communal experience, there’s a certain amount of need for that, of just being able to enjoy things with other people,” says Plaza Theatre owner Christopher Escobar.

The idea for the Plaza Theatre Drive-in actually predated the pandemic. Then it became a necessity. Now Escobar plans to add pop-up drive-ins in other locations around town and is scouting a warehouse in northwest Atlanta to host the city’s (and maybe the world’s) first indoor drive-in experience.

Will the drive-in stick around, or vanish when life returns to normal? “As long as I’m not losing money, I’ll keep doing the drive-in” says Escobar. We’ll be there too.

IF YOU GO

Starlight Drive-In. $10 adults, $1 children ages 5-9. 200 Moreland Ave., Atlanta. www.starlightdrivein.com

Plaza Theatre Drive-In. $15-$50 for 1-5 people. 1049 Ponce De Leon Ave., Atlanta. 470-410-1939, plazaatlanta.com

Walmart Drive-In. August-October. Check site for times and locations. walmartdrive-in.com

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism.
AJC.com. Atlanta. News. Now.

Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism.
AJC.com. Atlanta. News. Now.

With the largest team in the state, the AJC reports what’s really going on with your tax dollars and your elected officials. Subscribe today. Visit the AJC’s Georgia Navigator for the latest in Georgia politics.

Your subscription to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism. Visit the AJC’s Georgia Navigator for the latest in Georgia politics.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *