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Tales from the drive-in on its 90th anniversary

How watching films through a car windshield shaped me as a moviegoer — and a critic

"Jurassic Park" played at the Wellfleet Drive-In Theatre on June 25, 2020.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

“Cover your eyes and lay on the seat!” my mother yelled.

I was 6 years old, sitting in the back of an Oldsmobile trying to watch the movie in front of me. On the driver’s side window was a huge, unreliable speaker hanging crookedly from a hook provided by the Newark Drive-In. I have many memories of my Pops, or an aunt or uncle, pulling up to one of those speaker poles only to swear profusely at it because the equipment was always broken. (Nowadays, places like the currently open Wellfleet Drive-In Theatre on Cape Cod use radio simulcasting.)


This wasn’t my first time at a drive-in, but it’s the one I remember most from my childhood. You see, the reason I kept trying to watch the movie is that my parents kept blocking my view.

Warren Beatty and Julie Christie in "Shampoo," 1975.THE EVERETT COLLECTION

In a very unwise decision, my folks took me to see “Shampoo,” the 1975 Warren Beatty movie about a horny hairdresser who sleeps with almost every woman he encounters. I don’t remember what was happening onscreen; I just recall that I wanted to see it. Everywhere I moved inside the car, gigantic hands covered my view. Eventually, Mom made that panicked demand about the backseat.

I can laugh about her outburst now. (“Shampoo” isn’t that nasty! Geez, Ma!) But back then, I was traumatized. Years later, at a book signing, I would tell this story to Lee Grant, who won an Oscar for her role as client Felicia in “Shampoo” and may have been on the screen when I covered my own eyes. She wrote “love to your mother” in my copy of her 2014 memoir, “I Said Yes to Everything.”

To be honest, it’s very likely I could have looked out at one of the cars in the drive-in lot and seen a far more explicit version of what Warren, Grant, Julie Christie, and Goldie Hawn were up to at various moments onscreen. Because back in the day, drive-ins were notorious for people having X-rated times at PG-rated movies. I overheard my older cousins talking about their exploits, and I couldn’t wait until I was old enough to have my own.


But I’m getting ahead of the story here.

This year marks the 90th anniversary of the drive-in. Developed by Richard Hollingshead, the first theater opened in my beloved home state of New Jersey on June 6, 1933. The Camden Drive-In, in Pennsauken, debuted with a screening of the salaciously titled 1932 comedy “Wives Beware,” about a married guy who fakes amnesia so he can chase other women. Admission was a buck per car, and you didn’t need any clunky, private window speakers to hear the movie; it was blasted out of the theater’s external sound system for both your enjoyment and the discomfort of the neighbors.

For many years, drive-ins usually showed a double feature, and they were often second-run or B-movies. My first experience at the drive-in was a double bill of Jonathan Kaplan’s 1975 trucker classic “White Line Fever” and 1976′s supernatural horror film “Shadow of the Hawk.” The star of both of those flicks, Jan-Michael Vincent, was in demand back then, let me tell you.

Bill Thornbury screams in a scene from the film "Phantasm," 1979. AVCO/Getty Images

Many of my drive-in visits involved genre films. I saw director Don Coscarelli’s awesome, weird-as-hell 1979 horror movie, “Phantasm,” through the windshield of my uncle’s brown station wagon. He stuffed a slew of my cousins and me into the car (hiding a few of us under a blanket so he wouldn’t have to pay extra), and my aunt got us some of the pizza that was always burnt beyond recognition at the concession stand. It was even burnt in the ad for the concession stand that played between movies!


With its creepy mortuary setting and a flying, killer sphere that drilled holes in one unlucky victim’s head, “Phantasm” was quintessential drive-in fare. I should point out that no one tried to stop me from seeing that sphere in action. Violence was far less censored than sex when I was growing up.

Robert De Niro in "Taxi Driver," 1976. Columbia Pictures/Photofest

Speaking of violence, I saw 1976’s “Taxi Driver” at the drive-in. I was 7. As I’d learn from our numerous trips to see R-rated movies in Times Square, my Pops was the far more lenient parent regarding what I could watch. “Don’t tell your mother,” he’d say. Don’t you tell her, either.

B-movies weren’t the only offerings at the drive-in. I saw “Grease” at Jersey City’s Roosevelt Drive-In during the summer of 1978. “Grease” was such a big deal it didn’t even play with another film. This year marks its 45th anniversary, and it’s just as popular now. By the time I got to my fifth grade class in September, all my classmates had fallen in love with the movie and could not stop talking about it.


Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta in "Grease," 1978.Paramount

I hated “Grease.” I still hate “Grease.” Despite participating in more than one karaoke singalong to “Summer Nights,” I think it’s one of the worst movies ever made. When I expressed that opinion, my classmates played hand jive on my face.

A film critic was born that day.

Perhaps to spite me, all the drive-ins in my area had closed down by the time I got my license and a car. Screenings in parks were fast becoming the new outdoor moviegoing experience. The drive-ins that remained were too far away for me to consider, so I resigned myself to never going to one as an adult. Then the pandemic happened.

At my old tech job, we were required to take a two-week mental health vacation in summer 2020. I chose to drive to the Finger Lakes region of New York State. In Ithaca, I discovered a pop-up drive-in theater was opening that evening. They were showing Steven Spielberg’s 1993 dinosaur disaster epic “Jurassic Park” which, despite its directorial pedigree and massive budget, is still perfect drive-in fodder.

So I went. I didn’t have to worry about a broken speaker hanging from my window, just my car radio. And I was by myself, so there was no chance I was getting lucky in my car. But I made the best of my first drive-in as an adult. I blasted the radio during the T-rex attack, trying to replicate that scene’s famous ripples in my own cup of water. Completely by coincidence, I packed a “Jurassic Park” T-shirt in my bag, which got me some props at the concession stand (they didn’t have any burnt pizza, though).


That night, despite the hell we were going through in real life, I reconnected with my childhood love of the drive-in. Those experiences shaped my love of movies.

Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.