This summer, the drive-in movie experience is making a comeback on Long Island, only now you don’t need a car.
While the days of drive-in theaters on Long Island are long extinct, many towns are now scheduling movie nights outdoors. The venues range from town parks to beaches to school football fields, all providing a great evening of entertainment.
Many movie nights, which begin at dark, are geared toward parents with young children as a way for the adults to have a night out with friends and neighbors while their kids are being entertained in the general vicinity. Pack snacks and drinks, (don’t forget the bug spray), put the kids in their PJs and pile into the car for an evening of fun and relaxation while watching a movie. Kind of like what our parents did with us in preparation for a trip to the drive-in, only you don’t have to stay in the car.
The drive-in movie experience peaked during the 1950s as more and more people became infatuated with the automobile. People loved both driving and movies, so why not combine the two?
Long Island was home to more than 30 drive-in theaters at one point, with the last ones in both Copiague and Westbury closing after Labor Day in 1998. The Johnny All-Weather theater in Copiague was one of the largest in the country, with spaces for more than 2,500 cars, and even had seating on the concession rooftop.
As kids growing up in the 1960s, going to the movies was always special. There were opulent theater lobbies permeated by the distinct aroma of popcorn and of course, giant movie screens with a booming sound system. Quite a different experience than watching your 19-inch black and white TV at home. But going to a drive-in movie? Well, that was off the charts.
It was more than just a movie, it was an adventure. Along with your siblings and most likely a few cousins or friends, everyone piled into the station wagon, excitedly yapping about the movie we were about to see. After all, the only place you could ever see a movie was in the theater.
Once inside, your dad channeled Magellan, navigating row after row, searching for the best landing spot. My father would back the station wagon up onto the incline, elevating the back of the car so we could see better. Some people would bring lawn chairs to sit outside.
The screen was as big as a house, almost 40 feet tall and 60 feet wide, lighting up the night sky with life-sized monsters. The sound was delivered by a tin-box speaker anchored to a pole. You’d hook the speaker over the car window and it delivered a dull, toneless sound normally associated with subway station announcements.
Besides families, the drive-in was the perfect place for young couples dating. Ah, the chance to be all alone in your car with your sweetheart, surrounded by 500 strangers. Apparently, the subject matter of the movie was irrelevant since the windows of some cars parked in the back few rows were always steamed up. Most of us have spent time at a drive-in without ever seeing the actual movie. Of course, many teenagers went to the drive-in because they could stuff two or three extra kids into the trunk, paying for two.
This summer, you can still see outdoor movies in Nassau County from as far south as the Jones Beach band shell, all the way up to Port Washington. Outdoors, you can spread out with your chairs and blankets while the kids sit still for about 20 minutes.
There may not have been many movies available back then, but to a kid, going to the drive-in was an event. Today, the influx of On Demand services with movies available at any time has rendered venues like the drive-in theater moot.
Did you know there are still 28 drive-in theaters operating in New York state, including the Overlook Drive-In upstate in Poughkeepsie? They have a six-story screen that delivers digital movies, just like in theaters, and the sound is delivered over your FM radio.
Instead of taking in the new Spiderman reboot at your local multiplex, maybe you should pile the kids in the car for a day trip upstate and end it with a movie experience they might never forget.