The Drive-In Still Offers an Escape

Driving into a bygone culture at the West Wind 5

Photo by Jon Estrada

Photo by Jon Estrada

A woman’s foot dangles out of the driver’s-side front window of a parked pickup truck. She and her friend are first in line at West Wind 5 Drive-In, and it’s not even dark yet, and the place doesn’t open for another half-hour. Within 15 minutes, a dozen cars will be parked in the line, facing the 20-foot-high, light-bulb-speckled yellow arches that mark the entry. Two years ago, this driveway—off of Carey Avenue and Rancho Drive—was so riddled with potholes and crumbling pavement that you risked blowing a tire on the way in. Today, most of it is repaved.

My girlfriend and I pull into the line. We’re here to see Godzilla, which just seems suited for a drive-in. I want to see monsters and mayhem and mass destruction so big in the night sky that the horror is palpable, for $5 on a Tuesday night.

The first drive-in theater was opened in New Jersey in 1933, marketed with the slogan, “The whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are.” The novelty appealed to a burgeoning car culture, which boomed in the 1950s and ’60s, and made drive-ins a central part of family nights and date nights—who doesn’t remember the classic drive-in scene in the movie Grease? In their heyday, some 5,000 drive-in theaters dotted the American landscape—a figure that’s dwindled to just a few hundred. California-based West Wind owns seven drive-ins, including this one in North Las Vegas, one in Reno, four in California and one in Glendale, Arizona, that is the last operational drive-in in the state. Some of West Wind’s theaters are paired with public markets or swap meets in an attempt to repopulate the old drive-ins with shopper overflow.

But here, on a corner lot squished between the Fiesta Rancho and the North Las Vegas Airport, it’s all about resurrecting the basics of the old drive-in experience itself. By the time we find a spot on the paved moguls and angle our car at the big screen, people nearby have unfolded lawn chairs, unpacked pizzas and drinks, and taken their kids up to the little playground by the snack bar before the movie starts.

Some have wisely driven trucks or SUVs so that they can park backward and recline in the truck bed, under the stars, which are intermittently criss-crossed by helicopters going to and from the airport. As relative novices, we recline the front seats of a Scion, open the windows and moonroof, and then tune the radio to the station assigned to Godzilla. Someone nearby is smoking a joint; someone else has set up a folding table with a beer cooler on top. It’s not exactly poodle skirts and flattops, but it’s not a squeaky seat and sticky floor inside a stuffy theater, either. We’re enjoying a relatively cool spring night and basking in the idea that the point of a drive-in is primarily to experience the scene—a notion that becomes even more clear when our feature begins.

Godzilla is a visually dark movie. We’re at the screen farthest from the digital projection booth, and from our vantage point in the third car row, it’s sometimes tough to distinguish the limbs and fangs of one bad-ass monster from another, or to distinguish one dark, doomed city from the dark, desolate sea. So the lighting isn’t great. In fact, for a full 30 percent of the movie, I’m not sure what I’m looking at, and I find my eyes drifting off, trying to see which car the weed is coming from.

But the truth about Godzilla is that I mostly wanted to see Yucca Mountain’s on-screen cameo, and that scene was well-lit and sufficiently hilarious for my five bucks.

And, I just wanted to go to the drive-in. In recent years, I’ve watched movies on laptops and airplanes, on iPads and in theaters equipped with huge recliners and seat-side food and beverage service. I pay for Netflix and cable, I view short clips on my phone, and read critical and fan reviews on my Fandango app. My movie life is plentiful.

But we watch movies in part to escape, to enter a world other than our own. And when we roll into the drive-in in 2014, we do just that.