Drive-in movies: Catching up with the past.

This article or something like it appeared in The Tacoma Ledger on 8/6/2012. lol.

If you ever spent time during the summers of your youth visiting a drive-in movie theater, you likely have a soft spot for this kind of movie-going today. As a kid I remember being amazed in our family car watching Back to the Future Part III. I also can’t seem to forget that ancient fear from having witnessed Gremlins 2 in the middle of the dark night outdoors. Yes, I did see some movies that were not sequels, but regardless, I remember the drive-in with fondness.  Even in this HD-IMAX-digital-surround sound era of movie entertainment, I still hold a sacred place in my heart for the 35MM film-distant screen-celluloid-AM radio experience I get at the drive-in.

I recently visited the Valley 6 Drive-In Theater in Auburn and talked with its operations manager, Keith about a variety of topics related to drive-ins. Keith has been with Valley 6 since 1991, but even before that he was essentially raised at the drive-in. While growing up his family helped operate the Rodeo Drive-In just up the road in Bremerton, Washington.

Even beyond the notion of drive-in theater as historic Americana, there’s an interesting theme of legacy that pervades Valley 6. One employee, while helping his son search for a job came to Valley 6 and after getting some information, both father and son ended up finding employment there. Keith says there have been several parent-child tandems having worked at Valley 6.

Back in 1969, Valley 6 originally opened with only three screens. Due to a growth in demand, in 1980 it was extended to include all six screens currently on the site. One of the more nostalgic parts of the whole campus is the one 1969 screen that is in disrepair but still standing. It’s a deteriorating hollow phantom of an icon that stands to remind us that the drive-in is an historic pastime that has entertained many generations. Drive-in theaters are also emblematic of many forms of mass entertainment that are in their twilight stages.

It’s readily accepted that technological advances in movies have turned the drive-in theater movie into an antiquated experience, but it’s just one of many forms of popular cultural activities that are being replaced by more personalized forms. The drive-in movie, even more-so than at an indoor movie theater, is an experience where patrons are very cognizant that they are taking part in a collective form of entertainment together. The proliferation of streaming and on-demand movies that can be watched with seemingly infinite variety on home-entertainment systems or even on mobile devices is gaining precedence in the way we choose to watch movies over the older but more social practices.

Personalization of culture has also been occurring in television with cable channels specializing on every major interest while network television increasingly struggles to retain ratings with traditional mass-appeal models of programming. And of course printed news, such as our beloved Ledger no longer hold primary sway about current events when faced against internet news sites, blogs and even RSS readers. These news resources allow so much customization of content that one can now fine-tune their own editorial slant just by consuming the exact news they want from amongst the entire internet.

While customization of activities, information, and experiences helps nourish such modern virtues as diversity and individuality, traditions such as the drive-in may be one means that we can preserve a sort of social cohesion that also gives us a sense of being part of something bigger. The Valley 6 drive-in theater has over 3000 vehicle stalls that allow a multitude of families and groups of various walks of life to experience something together.

While walking around the Valley 6 grounds I surveyed groups of people spread across multiple vehicles hanging-out, some sitting along the backs of trucks, vans and SUV’s, and some in fold-out chairs, many of them engaging each other with friendliness in the sweet fading sunlight. Many of their children were also playing frisbee and other games in the grassy spot under the white projection screen. The scene was expressive of a certain easy-going togetherness that seemed perfect on a warm summer night.

My companion and I were told that in addition to the regular movie showings, the Valley 6 has been reserved for a variety special occasions such as high-school class reunion events where movies from the graduating year were shown to the alumni. The Rocky Horror Picture Show is put on regularly for raving fans. Once, a large extended Indian family even held a get-together with an outdoor dinner with dancing and celebrating to a Bollywood film on the drive-in screen.

The Valley 6 shows primarily blockbuster type movies for understandable reasons. The drive-in, in addition to being a cultural treasure is also a business, and they must negotiate with movie distributors and adhere to amounts to be paid in royalties. These royalty agreements siphon-off much of what the theater makes from admissions. That means that, like indoor theaters, drive-ins must make most of their profits via concessions sales. So outside of the more occasional special screening, the theater must show movies that are in most-popular demand and will consistently bring in the largest number of visitors. It’s also why the business asks that visitors not bring in outside food or drinks. But wanting to retain loyal customers, staff at Valley 6 are more friendly than vigilant about this request. Visiting the concessions stand between showings of a double feature is a noble act of compassion and support for the continuing health of the theater.

As another measure of Valley 6’s kindness, Keith even offered to show us the projection room. In there are the three film projectors for one half of the six total screens. These mechanical marvels were a sight unto themselves. They are 1960’s era machines that still run strong and are each about the size of a small horse. Even more behemoth than these in terms of circumference were the film reels which lay flat and measure over a yard each in diameter. These huge spindles have upwards of 3,000 feet of 35 millimeter film spun round them. The film crisscrosses over and under head in an elaborate pulley system and it’s a wonder that it never gets twisted, tangled or caught at any point along it’s winding string-game.

After the tour we got one more example of how well-run the place is and how nice the employees are. We came back to our car during the previews of the movie only to find the car’s lights flashing rudely! A staff-person was quickly taping-up cardboard to cover up the annoyances. Murray, my troublemaking dog had learned a new trick and stepped his paw upon the emergency flashers button in the center console. Even in the darkness others might have seen my face flushed red as I apologized profusely for the blunder. They showed understanding, so I only still owe penance to a few hundred others that were there.

If you’ve never been to a drive-in or haven’t visited since Gremlins 2, then I suggest you get to one this summer. These icons of historic American culture are well attended, but they’re not exactly dominating the movie theaters industry either. The Valley 6 Drive-In itself has been rumored to be closing multiple times during the last few years due to the march of new suburban neighborhood development in the valley; but Valley 6 lumbers on with high-spirits and continues to provide the South Sound with multiple windows for peering into Tinsel Town. These landmarks will probably stay in business only as long as we support them with such rituals as seeing a drive-in movie once every summer.

The Puget Sound region has six currently operating drive-ins. In addition to Auburn’s Valley 6 Drive-In and the Rodeo Drive-In in Bremerton, there are theaters in Sultan, Colville, Oak Harbor, Shelton, and Port Townsend. Most are operating throughout the rest of summer and into September.