Yet Another Passing Era

Developers are as busy as ever bulldozing much of what used to be America, transforming the place into a homogeneous conglomeration of chain stores and condos. But, here and there, you can find architectural treasures that somehow escaped the wrecking ball, keeping alive vestiges of an almost vanished past.

I especially love those endearing old places that still perform their antiquated functions.

Every spring, when I walk up a ramp at Fenway Park (1912), and behold the looming left-field wall and that impossibly emerald field, my spine tingles exactly as it did when I was 10. The forces of darkness tried to knock down Fenway a few years ago, but failed _ largely because, to the dismay of some politicians and developers, taxpayers weren’t stupid enough to wish to fund a soulless new stadium.

And, remarkably, the Rustic Drive-In (circa 1950s), in Smithfield, R.I., lives on, handing down the drive-in experience to new carloads of kids.

Drive-ins, of course, were a classic, cheesy Baby Boom phenomenon, fueled by big families, disposable income, and an all-American addiction to large automobiles, one so strong that people didn’t even want to leave their vehicles to go to the movies.

In 1958, there were 4,063 such theaters in America, according to United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association. Almost all are gone, victim of development pressures and low per-acre return on investment. This summer, a mere 402 were in operation, with only 19 in New England (one in Rhode Island). Ohio and Pennsylvania _ swing-state America _ have the greatest number, with 35 each.

The annual trip to the drive-in was a big event in my boyhood _ one of the highlights of the summer, like eating out at a restaurant once a year.

We’d pull up in a station wagon loaded with kids, blankets and pillows, the youngest of us already in slippers and jammies, on my parents’ usually overly optimistic theory that we would sleep during the second feature.

The experience seemed to go on and on. It started with a pre-dusk visit to the industrial-strength swing set, far in the rear, beyond the projection building and snack bar. Hours later, in kid time, the first feature would dimly begin on the big screen, seemingly before it even got dark.

If memory serves, the clunky metal speaker hooked to the driver’s side window had a tendency to fall off. The sound was terrible, if the unit worked at all.

Each time my dad tried to adjust the volume, there would be an ear-splitting explosion of static.

When the kids’ feature ended, a deep-voiced announcer, talking over dancing popcorn boxes and sweating cups of ice-cold soda-pop, would entice us to visit the snack bar for “mouth-watering refreshments.” My mom always demurred, having cruelly packed drinks and snacks to save money. I don’t know if it was the on-screen brainwashing or the mere fact that it was unattainable by us, but the “official” stuff inevitably looked supernaturally delicious compared with our humdrum fare.

The second feature tended to be considered “inappropriate” for children, featuring such adult activities as firing guns and kissing on the lips. While my younger sisters slept, I would peep.

And I would suddenly jolt awake in the darkness, as motorists revved their vehicles and my dad began driving for the exit, jostling us hard as the car heaved over the mounds and valleys of the parking area.

The whole experience had an otherworldly quality. I well remember the weird, muffled screams of girls in cars all over one drive-in theater in 1965, as John’s or Paul’s giant face loomed on the screen during a showing of “Help!” (The other feature was the horrendous “Bye-Bye Birdie,” which some distributor apparently considered a “rock ‘n’ roll” movie worth pairing with the Beatles.)

I won’t go into my memories of teenage visits to the drive-in.

Last week, I took my three kids to the Rustic. It is aptly named. Its parking area is a moonscape of craters and asphalt chunks, and its restrooms smell at times like something out of a Burma railway station. But it is wonderful.

It cost $17 per carload for a double feature (half of what I spent to haul the kids recently to an indoor showing of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory alone).

The speakers are gone: You tune in the soundtrack on the car radio _ tip: bring a portable, too.

In a culture that assaults children with incredible media technology, a drive-in theater might seem archaic, but my kids loved it.

I packed bug spray, blankets, pillows and lawn chairs. To save money, I packed drinks and snacks, to cries of disappointment (they wanted the official stuff).

While two of the kids sprawled in the back of the station wagon, my 6-year-old and I sat out in the warm breeze, under the stars, sipping our soft drinks, laughing at the Oompa-Loompas, and trying to hear above the crickets.

Later that night, after I had moved him inside and ordered him to sleep, I caught him peeping at the scary second feature.

Savor it while you can.

(Edward Achorn is The Providence Journal’s deputy editorial pages editor. His e-mail address is eachorn@projo. com.)