June 6

1933 — opening night of the first drive-in theater, Camden, NJ

 

The event was challenging to set up, but people seemed to need it. They wanted to feel normal again.

That night under a cloudless sky, families sat on blankets they’d arranged to mimic rows of cars from long-ago weekends in this same location.  As snacks, they’d brought envelopes of freeze-dried food, canteens of uncontaminated water.

The projectionist used a gas generator to power old-fashioned equipment.  The newer DVDs and high-def projectors wouldn’t work well outside, but the lamp from the 35mm projector was strong enough to cast discernible moving images on the screen in front of the “parked” blankets.

Skipping the newsreel and trailers, the projectionist began with a cartoon.  Top sections of the old screen had crumbled away, so the upper portion of some images drifted over the top into fog, tinting barren trees behind the former drive-in lot.  The sound system was inoperable, but the audience could easily follow the motions of one animal chasing another, predator and prey, a hunted tiny creature sometimes summoning nerve to fight back for its survival.

The plot of the main feature was more difficult to understand.  In close-ups, as people talked the tops of their heads were cut off by the broken screen, so that the actors often looked like one-eyed mutants or accident victims. Their mouths moved, but no sounds came out, and some members of the audience imagined they were watching a realistic drama, while others enjoyed a slapstick comedy.

During downtown long-shots, buildings were also cut off at the top — a striking parallel to the crumbled ruins of today’s cities.

A restaurant scene prompted hungry groans and scattered applause.  A fragmented car chase moved so quickly it was hard to tell who was chasing who, whether the hero or villain (or both?) died in the climactic explosion.

Once the final credits of sprocketed film rolled through and out of the projector, the audience members behaved exactly as other drive-in patrons had behaved in the past, withdrawing slowly from the escapist joys of the movie, gathering to leave, fading reluctantly into the drab and predictable struggles of day-to-day existence.

 

For my friends at The Horror Drive-Inhttp://www.horrordrive-in.com/smf/index.php