This is my third essay about the social life of drive-in theaters. In the first, “An Angry Mob of Villagers,” I described the end of the first wave of the drive-in’s history. What had evolved rapidly after World War II as family entertainment in the new suburbs had devolved, by the late 1970’s, into exploitation movies made for teenagers seeking a taboo thrill; I was an unselfconscious participant in the cultural moment of 1980 at age seventeen. The second piece, “The Last Night at the Cottage View,” was elegiac in tone, lamenting the loss of one of the two last remaining outdoor theaters in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. I was present at the Cottage View in 2012, but I was also measuring that experience against my memories of the St. Croix Hilltop from 1980. The essay was written from the perspective of a fifty-year-old man who sees the world that he grew up in disappearing. I felt my orbit around the mainstream of life widening, my isolation increasing, and I wanted to hang onto something familiar.
Garrison Keillor adopted a similarly wistful tone in his “Lake Wobegon” writing, which has become the most common pop-cultural touchstone for the character of Minnesota: rural, provincial, protestant and of primarily Scandinavian descent. While “Wobegon” clearly documents an actual place and culture with which Keillor is well acquainted, it also represents a state of longing, a fixed ideal that remains impervious to change: the little town that time forgot and the decades cannot improve. Keillor creates a vehicle for his audience’s nostalgia in much the same manner that a trip to an antique store or a favorite old movie from their youth might. The intermission films at the Cottage View in 2012 transported me to a previous period of my life; I retreated from the present complexities of aging into a reassuring past made appealing by its idealization in my memory.
On Memorial Day weekend, 2015, Hilde and I went to see “Furious 7” at the last remaining drive-in theater near St. Paul, the Vali-Hi. We arrived at six p.m., just as the gates opened, because we liked to watch the tailgating before sunset. There were already long lines of cars queued in either direction from the entrance. We took our place and began eating the dinner we’d brought along as we started to inch forward toward the ticket booths. It was immediately apparent that a “Fast and Furious” film attracted the car enthusiasts. Directly in front of us in line a polished lowrider bounced to a hip-hop update of conjunto music and behind us stood a giant 1950’s Chevy. It was a pleasant late spring evening, the Vali-Hi would probably sell out and the people-watching was going to be especially good.
The “Fast and Furious” franchise had captured a huge global audience with increasingly outlandish car stunts and chase scenes; in this sense, “Furious 7” would have appealed to the same simple tastes as “Vanishing Point” or “Fast Company” at the 1970’s drive-in. But the “Fast and Furious” movies had earned their popularity in a uniquely 21st century manner as well, by expanding the wish-fulfillment fantasy to a much wider audience. With the exception of traditionally movie-handsome, white Paul Walker (whose role in “Furious 7” was finished in CG form after his death), all of the actors in the series were Latino, African-American or Asian, bonding as a chosen family. Much of the crowd at the Vali-Hi that evening, who would not have seen themselves represented in lead roles in the car films of the 1970’s, were now provided with powerful onscreen surrogates; the audience that “Furious 7” attracted that night was distinctly “post-Wobegon” in its ethnic diversity.
Once Hilde and I had gotten situated in a lively spot, we got out of our car and began to take stock of the scene surrounding us. Here are some vignettes from the notes I wrote the following morning:
The young Hmong guys have turned their modified Toyotas backwards to the screen and opened the hoods to show off the engines. There are five cars parked next to each other as if on display at an auto show and a group moves together from one car to another, bending over the engine, while the owner proudly describes his work. Further along the same row, Hilde is joking with the Latino guys in Spanish as they put on a similar show, though they favor American-brand cars as their raw material. The two groups of engine fanatics remain segregated at first, but then start to observe each other skeptically from a distance. Eventually, they approach each other’s cars and start comparing notes.
Three black families have set up camp, separating into women on one side and men on the other. The women arrange themselves in a semi-circle of lawn chairs, watching the foot traffic that passes by. From my remove, it seems as if they are entertaining each other with commentary on the informal, dusty fashion show.
The men stand around a grill, cooking sausages. The tallest guy wears a red apron and is in charge because he has the pair of tongs, though he’s getting advice from the other two. A white guy with a military crew-cut and a lot of tattoos approaches with a fuel canister. He’s apparently having problems getting his grill started and he’s asking for help. The successful grillers take their turns examining the fuel canister, shaking it, rubbing the threads which connect it to the grill, tapping it with the tongs, asking the owner questions. Hilde and I enter the circle to weigh in on a subject we know nothing about. We take our turns shaking the thing.
Their kids have joined a soccer game with a couple of white families located one row closer to the screen. An athletic blond girl is the alpha organizer of the game. She holds the ball and barks commands, then starts play. You can feel the confidence in her lithe, natural movements. Another girl, who looks as if she may be the soccer captain’s twin, stands and watches the game on crutches. She’s got a full cast on her left leg. She decides to get a better view of the action, sets the crutches down and springs and rolls acrobatically on the hood and then onto the roof of an SUV, artfully protecting her broken leg. Hilde and I applaud her performance and she bows her head in recognition, smiling.
A large Hmong family looks as if they’ve been living at the drive-in for a week. They’ve parked a couple of vans next to each other and have unpacked tables full of pickled vegetables, fruit, drinks and grilled meat, lawn chairs, a sofa and solar-powered lights. A dozen kids cluster around the tables of food, serving themselves on plastic plates, fighting for the best position. The old patriarch lays between the vans on a folding cot, taking a nap, his hands folded on his chest, while a couple of his grandchildren set a cup of liquid on his belly, trying not to laugh.
A white trio, mother, father and daughter, approaches with the softest, sleepiest puppy in the world and distracts everyone from the food. The thin tattooed man is dressed in pale blue shorts that hang just below his knees, chains at his waist, a gangster rap tee-shirt and cap. The mother offers the puppy to everyone who approaches to take their turn petting him; he can barely keep his eyes open. We take our turn touching the head of the royal puppy. Hilde says to the daughter “That little cutie must be yours, no?” The daughter twists shyly behind her mother, seemingly wishing that they could return to their car. But the parents continue to parade. As with the car enthusiasts, the drive-in is about seeing and being seen. People are here to show off the things they are proud of, whether that is clothing, a grill, a car or a puppy.
There is also a constant promenade of teenagers, often in packs with a clear social hierarchy. The leader walks first, a thin Asian kid with long straight hair, many piercings and a black pentagram shirt. He adopts an attitude of self-possession and disinterest. Three shorter and slightly younger boys follow him, in training, watching carefully for cues to mimic. One boy trails alone in the rear, maybe Native American, wearing loose military boots that are a couple of sizes too big. He looks at the ground. When you get a glimpse of his face, he already has the expression of a concerned adult.
A mixed-race group of boys and girls is next. The three girls stage a choreographed dance for the I-phone camera. They review it and shake their heads negatively and perform it again. The boys they are with pause impatiently, kicking the dirt and punching each other in the shoulders, but not hard. Ironically, the girls stop shooting when they realize that Hilde and I are watching them. The six teenagers move on, the implicit flirtations and affiliations reform and the shyest boy drifts behind. He listens carefully to the banter, but rarely joins in. One of the other boys turns and throws candy in the air toward him which he deftly catches in his mouth.
Three Somali men in their early twenties sit on the hood of a pick-up truck, leaning back against the windshield, wearing matching gray suits and fedoras and carefully sculpted beards. They look like a doo-wop singing group. They pass a vaporizer back and forth and stare, blissed out, into the sun, which is approaching the horizon now.
Next to them a middle-aged man in an American flag tee-shirt and a veteran’s cap stands smiling, long straight gray hair, holding a can of Busch beer in a Styrofoam sleeve. He’s got a boom box at his feet and is nodding his head to Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.” He watches us passing, watching him. I’m wearing a vintage Smokey the Bear shirt that reads “Fire Danger Today: Very High.” The man, who is one of the first we’ve seen who might be our age, laughs and gives me the heavy metal “sign of the horns.” The natty trio of Africans are now nodding their heads in time to Led Zeppelin too.
At a basic level, people are outside on a nice night, relaxed and unguarded, eating, in some cases drinking alcohol and getting high. Children are playing games and making momentary new friends. Everyone is simultaneously putting on a show and watching the show. And then, when it gets dark, they will watch a movie or two. These were the vestiges of old drive-in familiarity that I had been seeking in 2012 at the Cottage View; movie-going as a social activity.
The multicultural Minnesota of May, 2015 felt initially unfamiliar, but welcomed us in without much awkwardness. Hilde and I walked, old white tourists from another era, through the dust and smoke from grills, observing the wildly heterogeneous audience that had never been included in the fantasy of first-generation-immigrant Lake Wobegon. The Vali-Hi had reinvented itself for the future in the same fashion that “Fast and Furious” had updated the car racing film; inclusiveness in the mainstream narrative makes good financial sense.
As for my own longstanding relationship with the drive-in, rather than reflecting on what was fading away in my personal history, I was now participating in a social renewal that distracted me from my nostalgia and shook me out of the melancholy of 2012. The drive-in theater was thriving and I was a part of its ongoing life, if still as the detached observer that I essentially am.