A Slice of Americana Pie

The sun dissolves slowly into a pool of red behind the mountains. Cars crawl slowly across a parking lot of asphalt hills in neat rows toward a while billboard. The smell of yellow butter popcorn and the soft fizz of Coke and Dr. Pepper drift between the headlights. Kids climb in truck beds, adults set up lawn chairs. Car radios tuned to the pre-cinematic static on 90.3 FM bleed out through open doors and tailgates. Behind the screen, a two-seater prop plane is prepped for take-off from the regional airport on the other side of the fence. A projector flickers to life and simultaneous sound pours out of a hundred radios.

The past holds power over us. Nostalgia has an undeniable draw, a siren song of simpler times. Old styles reemerge; old technologies are re-embraced. It doesn’t matter how many songs an iPhone can store in hi-fidelity digital form — we hang on to our vinyl records and cherish their low-fi analog sound. No matter how much I love the latest gadgets, I’m still captivated by the robust, mid-century design of an Underwood typewriter or find myself transfixed by a peeling ice cream advertisement painted on the brick wall of a forgotten alley. I love being immersed in the lost world of the past.

There are places like drive-in movie theaters that capture our imagination and transport us back to a time when we assume that life was less complicated than it is now. Of course, life has always been a complicated, messy business, but for a few hours, we can eat our popcorn and pretend otherwise. The drive-in won’t tell.

Still, drive-ins are dying. In 1958, there were nearly 5,000 in operation across the country. Today, there are just 367 left. In a few years, they may be as extinct as the zeppelin and the Packard. They can’t compete with the multiplex theater forever — but for now, the past comes to life every night at sunset.

It may be hot, the guy in the car facing you might accidentally flip his headlights on several times and the radio may crackle, but it’s a small price to pay for one night to escape the crushing onslaught of modernity. While the screens still stand, a piece of living, homegrown history is just a short drive away.

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