Oh, the iconic 1950s. Complete with poodle skirts, sock hops, Elvis Presley and soda fountains, the ‘50s provided Americans with unprecedented forms of entertainment.
While many fads of the ‘50s have merely existed in nostalgic portrayals, such as “Grease” and reruns of “Happy Days,” one iconic recreational activity popularized during the era can still be experienced today: drive-in theaters.
This romanticized pastime of the ‘50s revolutionized the world of teenage dating, brought new life to the motion picture industry and became one of the greatest icons of the era.
Although the first drive-in, formerly known as a park-in theater, opened in June 1933 in Camden, N.J., the industry experienced its heyday in the late 1950s to mid-‘60s with nearly 5,000 theaters throughout the U.S. Despite showing mostly “B movies” history.com deemed “not Hollywood’s finest fare,” people of all ages flocked to drive-ins to experience movies like never before.
The comfort and privacy of one’s own car made these theaters undeniably popular, especially among the teenage crowd. Moviegoers could control their cinematic experience by customizing audio levels and seat positions. They could experience the movies without dealing with common annoyances encountered in traditional theaters, such as Chatty Cathys and chair-kicking children. In fact, it is likely the quality of movies themselves played little role in the overall experience of the theaters, as the popularity of drive-ins grew in large part because of the intimate and private settings they provided to young couples seeking rendezvous.
However, with the constantly evolving technology of the late 20th century and increasing costs of real estate and land ownership, these once-popular theaters began to dwindle. Walk-in theaters became more prominent and used less land than huge theater lots, one of the largest occupying 28 acres in Copiague, N.Y.
Subsequently, VCRs became common features in most American homes and video rental stores sprung up across the nation, replacing the privacy of the backseat with the comfort and convenience of the living room couch.
Today, only about 500 drive-in theaters still exist. However, San Diegans are among the few who can still enjoy a piece of the good ol’ days. All it takes is a short drive to South Bay’s drive-in, one of San Diego’s two drive-in theaters.
Founded in 1958, the South Bay Drive-in Theatre began with a single 100-foot screen. When the theater was remodeled in 1974, the original screen was replaced and two more were added. All three are still projecting popular movies today. This drive-in is conveniently located off of Interstate-5 on Coronado Avenue. Although a field across the street from a residential area may not be considered the most ideal spot for a huge three-screen drive-in theater, upon entering this theater lot the outside world seems to disappear.
The giant welcome sign displays ticket prices that seem fitting for decades ago. A $7 per person movie ticket grants admittance to not one, but two back-to-back, full-length feature films, which are either currently playing or were in theaters a few weeks previously.
Although the movies playing are modern, the ticket booths are not. The theater’s cash-only policy and lack of on-site ATMs offer a careful reflection of 20th century ways. Fortunately, a quick trip down the block leads to two convenient stores with ATMs and a vast array of snacks.
Unlike many movie theaters, avoiding the outrageously priced snacks sold at concession stands is easy to do at the drive-in. Sneaking soda bottles into handbags is not necessary. Though the theater’s concession stand sells goodies of its own, outside snacks can be enjoyed without worry.
Three clearly marked driveways lead around the inside of the premises to each screen’s lots. Upon arriving at screen three to watch Steven Soderbergh’s “Haywire,” it was pleasantly surprising to find the pavement-covered lot laid out in accordion-style angles for the perfect view from any parking spot. The lot is also large enough so, even on a Saturday, no two cars are parked directly next to each other.
A large lot demands large movie screens, and while the size of the screens is impressive, the close proximity of each lot can be a bit of a distraction. It’s difficult to focus entirely on “Haywire” when “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” is slightly visible from the accompanying lot. Also, with such enormous screens must come a gargantuan electric bill. Perhaps this could explain the poor screen lighting during certain scenes.
However, the sound quality was surprisingly crisp and precise. Audio from the car’s radio not only provided surround sound and gave each vehicle control of volume levels, but also provided a closer sense of the scene’s reality. Be sure to have a trustworthy car battery or some reliable jumper cables if opting to pipe the film’s audio through the car radio. Otherwise, a portable battery-operated radio will suffice.
Should you find halfway through that a movie isn’t so great, don’t stress. The lots’ adjacent locations enable an easy switch between films. Don’t forget blankets on those chilly nights so you more thoroughly enjoy this piece of the ‘50s alongside the memory of Sandy Olson and Danny Zuko.