“It’s astounding. Time is fleeting. Madness takes its toll.”
Like a party-loving Pavlov’s dog, I began uncontrollably salivating at those lyrics. “The Time Warp” from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” has always meant just one thing to me and my fellow creatures of the night: “You take a jump to the left, and then a step to the right." You also smile and sing along at the top of your lungs.
And for the love of Barry Bostwick, I was ready to jump, smile, and sing.
I peered out of my slightly fogged-up car window at the Mendon Twin Drive-In to see if anyone was actually doing the Time Warp (please, please, please let it be!), but alas, all I saw were other slightly fogged-up car windows. For those unfamiliar with “Rocky Horror” — although I don’t think such a thing is possible — the 1975 musical is the ultimate midnight movie. Many devotees dress like characters from the film. They bring props and recite lines. Allow me to stereotype for a moment, but “Rocky Horror” is a participatory sport for those of us band nerds and theater geeks who never really played sports.
“Rocky Horror” was one of two sold-out movies showing Memorial Day weekend (the other was “Jurassic Park”) at the Mendon Twin Drive-in. I didn’t see anyone dressed as Janet Weiss, Riff Raff, or, most importantly, Frank N. Furter. Instead, my fellow moviegoers were wearing pajamas, sweats, and face masks. Even without the costumes and props, it was still one of the most wonderful things I’d seen in the months since COVID-19 left us stuck with nothing but Zoom conference calls and grim statistics. I was finally watching a movie from a location other than my sofa!
The Mendon Twin Drive-in was the first drive-in theater in Massachusetts to open at 11:59 p.m. on Sunday night. Monday was the day some businesses previously deemed nonessential were allowed to open under phase one of Massachusetts’s coronavirus reopening plan. It makes sense that drive-ins would be deemed safe to open in phase one. You can watch from inside your car, or you can set up lawn chairs and see the movie in front of your vehicle at a safe distance from others (Mendon Twin Drive-In blocked off every other space to allow distance between cars).
Drive-in movies are the ultimate time warp. This was a form of entertainment that came of age with car culture in the 1950s and 1960s, faded with the energy crisis of the 1970s, and brought to near extinction with the multiplexes of the 1980s. But this summer, the drive-in will have its revenge. The drive-in movie will become more relevant then it has since the Mamas and the Papas ruled the airwaves and Frankie and Annette decided that the beach was the best place to play bingo. I’m here for all of it.
A pandemic that has completely changed the way we live in 2020 is about to hand kids a midcentury pop culture history lesson with a side of popcorn. They will unwittingly learn the joys of watching movies the way their grandparents did. It won’t be exactly the same. Those clunky metal speakers that attached to car windows and delivered the sound quality of a homemade transistor radio are thankfully gone from most drive-ins. You tune in via your car’s radio.
Locally, the Kowloon restaurant in Saugus is planning to show movies in its parking lot with car-side food and beverage service. The Showcase Cinema at Patriot Place also announced it’s turning its parking lot into a drive-in theater this summer. I suspect these won’t be the only pop-up drive-ins we’ll see around Boston this summer.
Like watching “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” the return of the drive-in theater is both comforting and bizarre. It’s a fun novelty, but at those moments when you remember why you’re at a drive-in and you see fellow film enthusiasts wearing face masks at the snack bar, standing six feet apart from each other in line, some of that fun evaporates.
When those moments hit me at the Mendon drive-in, I closed my eyes and dove into my deep recycling bin of drive-in theater memories. Although I’m part of Gen X, the generation that eagerly hammered the lid on the coffin of drive-in theaters, I also grew up in a small town where the arrival of a multiplex was still 35 years away. My childhood movie-going experiences took place at a drive-in. It’s where I saw “Star Wars,” “Grease,” and “Jaws” in my pajamas. From the back of a Plymouth that was the size of a small cruise ship I watched reissues of “Bambi” and “Mary Poppins" while eating popcorn that was made at home.
“Why would we spend good money at a snack bar for food that we have at home?” was my mother’s familiar refrain, although everyone knows drive-in popcorn is better because it has artificial, butter-flavored topping and way too much salt.
As a teenager, before I could borrow my parents’ car and drive 40 minutes to the nearest mall multiplex, I was back at the drive-in with friends for more formative experiences. I sat glued to the canon of John Hughes films, relating to Molly Ringwald’s teen angst through those clunky speakers. Yes, I was a teenager who went to the drive-in and actually watched the movies.
Summer ended with what we affectionately called the all-nighters. These were schlocky horror films that ran until the wee hours. One year, during a particularly terrifying scene in “Dawn of the Dead,” some ne’er-do-wells tossed a mannequin with a noose around its neck over the screen. Cue the screams, flashing headlights, and car horns honking. My friends and I honked along and laughed hysterically. All these years later I can recall these experiences better than films viewed at the mall multiplex.
These are the memories and diversions I hope today’s kids come away with during the time-warped summer of 2020. They have spent their spring navigating one of the most terrifying chapters in history. Here’s a chance for them to form a different, and better, set of memories. Let’s hope in 35 years they’ll be treasuring and sharing their drive-in stories just as gleefully and colorfully as I can still share mine.