Just a short while ago, my family and I got back from a trip to the drive in. We drove about 200 miles to get there. Though I’m a lifelong drive in theater afficionado, it had been nearly twenty years since I’ve been to one. There are none very close to where we live.The drive [...]

Just a short while ago, my family and I got back from a trip to the drive in. We drove about 200 miles to get there. Though I’m a lifelong drive in theater afficionado, it had been nearly twenty years since I’ve been to one. There are none very close to where we live.

The drive was nice and we arrived several hours early. We checked in to our prepaid room (Expedia) and my wife Tanya took our daughters, Europa and India, for a swim at the motor lodge pool while I showered and rested up with a book. The gates to the drive in open two hours before the show began, and we got there a half an hour before that. The owner took our money and let us in.

Allow me to backtrack for a minute or two. The Starlight Drive-In, in Durham, NC, was built approximately 40 years ago. It had its ups and downs, but managed to survive the bust that took most of the drive in theaters with it. Then a few years ago, the screen burned down and it looked like the end. However, the community and the owner managed to get a new screen erected last year and it is back in operation, to a newly appreciative audience.

Of course I was the first one in. I’m obsessive that way. We chose the spot that looked the best and we all explored the place. It’s gorgeous, as these things go and the screen is in immaculate condition, of course.

As the cars began to arrive, I felt an overwhelming sense of community there. Everyone seemed to have genuine smiles on their faces and it seemed as if magic was in the air. More than magic…perhaps spirituality.

You can laugh, but I’m 100% serious. I’m not a religious person, but I’ve always felt that the drive in was a hallowed ground. Other than kneeling at the alter of the printed word, it is the closest equivalent to church that I’ve ever gone to. If there is a reward after this life of suffering, I hope that mine is at an eternal drive in, where the beer is always cold, the friends are warm and plentiful and the movies run nonstop.

It really did feel like a brother and sisterhood there. Just across from us two bluegrass musicians supplied entertainment with a guitar and fiddle (while their lady friend did a clog dance on a piece of plywood). A large group of students had a picnic, with tons of food and coolers filled with beer. People brought their dates, their dogs, their kids and everyone had a wonderful time.

The snack bar was kind of unique. It doubled as a gun and ammunition shop! Yes, along with the handmade burgers and hot dogs and popcorn and stuff, you could purchase weaponry. That’s not a bad idea, especially seeing as how Talledega Nights is playing there next week. That movie and its star would be perfect for target practice.

The kids had fun at the playground and even our 14 year old Europa, who normally is too worldly and sophisticated for such things, yelled and played and ran around.

The movie. Snakes on a Plane and I gotta tell you that I loved it. Sure, it’s stupid and the dialogue is cliched, the characters are stereotypes and the situations are ridiculously contrived. But it is stupid in a fun sort of way and it owes a huge debt to people like William Castle, Roger Corman, Bert I. Gordon and Samuel Z. Arkoff. We all laughed at the right places and rooted for the good guys and audience members cheered when Samuel Jackson said the classic line, “I am sick and tired of these MOTHERFUCKING SNAKES on this MOTHERFUCKING PLANE!”.

It was a perfect night and I’m glad that my friend (and the excellent writer) Mark Rainey and his wife made the trip and we discussed exploitation films as we waited for the show to begin.

I drove home both happy and sad. The experience was perfect, yes, but I wish I could be like the people that were there last night. I had the impression that most were Starlight regulars. I’d be there every damned week if I lived nearby. We plan to go back, maybe in October. Horror movies are usually making the rounds then and it should be delightfully cool on such a night. The perfect ambiance for a horror show.

Magic? Spiritual? Religious? Maybe that’s a big stretch for many of you, but I mean it. There really is something special about being out there and watching that huge screen. In the company of all those cars and friendly strangers.

If there is a drive in theater near you and you don’t support it, shame on you. It doesn’t matter that they play the same crap that the other theaters play. It’s different out there, under the stars. If you attend on a regular basis, I bet you’ll start to see the same faces and you’ll start to get to know the people that frequent it. It’s kind of hard not to, especially when you have kids and they play together.

In the end, The Starlight is wonderful place and if you live near it, please go when you can. I spoke to the owner and while business is good, progress is inevitable. It might not be such a long time before he’ll have no choice but to cave in to developers’ offers. Offers like that tend to become demands. Good old progress.

Just about everyone I talk to around here in Hampton Roads misses the drive ins. Yet attendance was sparce at the end before they closed down. People wanted to stay home and watch movies on their VCRs. Home video is great, but nothing can and ever will compare to pulling up on that gravelly surface and parking the car and settling back to experience the magic in the open night air.

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