Remembering the Drive-In

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Words || Nikita Jones

I have to repeat my question three times because my grandfather is in his 80s and I think his phone is even older.

Do you remember ever going to the drive-in!?”

When he finally caught on he called me by my cousin’s name, but at least he answered the question.

“Used to take all the kids, we’d get Kentucky and eat it while we was watching… I remember.”

My aunt added later, “He’d put all us kids up in the front and then lay down on the backseat for a sleep. We’d have to hit him when he started snoring in the good bits.”

I had to ask my family because, before setting out to write this article, my only point of reference for the concept of a ‘drive-in’ was that part in Grease where everyone works out that Rizzo is pregnant and then John Travolta whines about not getting some. By the time I came into the world, parents were sitting their kids down in front of televisions and popping in VHS tapes. Now they’re shoving iPads under kids’ noses when they need to shut them up at restaurants.

Yet here I am, at a drive-in theatre in 2017, asking a diner waitress for someone named Trudi.

The Skyline Blacktown drive-in opened in 1963 near the end of the drive-in heyday in Australia. Thanks to some convenient leasing laws, it’s the last remaining original drive-in theatre in Sydney and has remained a profitable business for 53 years. Today, going inside is like walking into an uber kitschy version of the 50s made for people who didn’t directly experience it. The vintage Coca-Cola drink stands are polished to diamond-like quality and there are bits of mass-produced memorabilia on the walls all artfully rusted to perfection. The décor is a baby-blue and peach combo, all the signs are in neon, and the booths are perfect milkshake-sharing photo ops. It’s as if this place is consciously doing everything it can to play directly into the Grease image in my head, and it’s working a charm.

Trudi, the general manager, turns from the counter and waves me over to a booth that’s just begging to be filled with a leather-jacketed gang of rockabilly youths. She’s been working here for over twenty years, and managing for the last three. I ask her what she thinks of higher-ups making the decision to lean so heavily into the vintage 50s aesthetic.

“I love that whole scene… they are very culture oriented,” she says, name-dropping several rockabilly scene events she’s attended this year. Wearing her pragmatic drizabone jacket it’s hard to imagine her dolled up in Rockabilly garb, but she assures me she’s a retro car-nut as well, pointing to the VW Beetle parked outside.

The Australian drive-in is the product of a very specific time in our cultural history; it’s a unique cocktail of post-war Americanisation, the rise of B-movie double features, and, importantly, 1950s family car culture. Outside of this context, the entire concept of the drive-in is absurd and so, like vinyl records, film cameras, and the use of the word ‘dreamboat’, the humble drive-in can’t seem to divorce itself from the vintage niche market.

Admittedly, this niche is rapidly becoming less of a niche – especially with regards to the cinema industry. From the existence of cult-classics and pastiches to straight up reboots, whether out of laziness or sincere reverence to some kind of golden-era, pockets of nostalgia bubble to the surface on the big screen rather frequently. Perhaps at one time the market for nostalgia was exclusive to the pipe-smoking, West Californian mentality that equates antiquity with authenticity, but nowadays filmmakers can expect to take nostalgia to the bank. Quentin Tarantino, for example, shoots on 70mm film and uses vinyl for his soundtracks, and while the use of the word ‘dreamboat’ never crops up, his films don’t seem to shy away from other dated words. Yet while he enjoys the nodded approval of the hipster market, Tarantino’s releases also steal top box office ratings without fail.

Perhaps this is why Skyline doesn’t bother all that much with exclusively screening cult classics or showing much of anything outside the standard Event Cinemas releases; the $11 admission isn’t actually for the particular film being shown; it’s for the experience of acting out a time gone by.

“You can put nostalgia films on that do really well and you can put a nostalgia film on that just does horribly,” Trudi tells me, citing the recent failure of an Elvis-themed night in contrast to sellout sessions of Pixar’s recent animated flick The Secret Life Of Pets during the holiday season.

This is true of any cinema – the holidays roll in and all of sudden places can stand to make hundreds of thousands of dollars off of whichever Pixar movie has the most talking animals in it. It does seem quite strange that a place specifically curated to be the kitschiest interpretation of the 50s imaginable pulls more families than hipsters. We live in an age where children own iPads that can stream any movie in the world and most kids have never have even seen Grease, let alone know what a drive-in is. Why is this place popular with families?

“Basically,” says Trudi, “the 80s didn’t only kill the radio star – it killed family entertainment”.

She’s not wrong; the figures for cinema attendance have been declining for years. Sure, new streaming technology sped up the process, but it was more or less just another blow in a series of hits on the industry.

“Once all the home theatres and the electronic age of the 80s came about, all your family fun outing stuff just seemed to disappear.”

Everyone knows nostalgia is bankable – people will pay hundreds for record players and turn up in droves for reunion concerts – but what exactly is it about the past that brings us back?

Objectively the fifties weren’t a great time for a lot of a people, most of us never even lived them, and yet in the face of rapidly improving changing culture and technology we yearn for the things we’ve left behind: those simpler times when the kids ate junk food and watched movies in the front seat of the car while their dad snored away in the back.