This is my third essay about the social life of drive-in theaters. In “An Angry Mob of Villagers,” I described the end of the first wave of the drive-in’s history. What had been family entertainment in the new suburbs of the 1950's had devolved by the late 70’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,” lamented 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 story was written from the perspective of a fifty-year-old man who sees a familiar landscape disappearing. I felt my orbit around the mainstream of life widening and I wanted to hang onto something reassuring.
Garrison Keillor adopted a similarly wistful tone in his “Lake Wobegon” writing, which became a pop-cultural touchstone for the character of Minnesota: rural, provincial, protestant and of primarily Scandinavian descent. While “Wobegon” clearly documents an actual milieu 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 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 time 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. Long lines of cars already extended in either direction from the entrance. We took our place and began eating our picnic dinner as we inched toward the ticket booth. It was immediately apparent that a Fast and Furious film brought out the car enthusiasts. Directly in front of us a polished lowrider bounced to a hip-hop update of conjunto music and a giant 1950’s Chevy idled behind us. On such a pleasant late spring evening, the Vali-Hi would likely sell out and the people-watching would be especially good.
The Fast and Furious franchise had captured a huge global audience with increasingly outlandish car stunts and chase scenes; Furious 7 would have appealed to the same audience 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, expanding the wish-fulfillment fantasy to a much wider demographic. 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 self-conscious family group. Many of those 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 given powerful onscreen surrogates; the crowd that Furious 7 attracted was distinctly post-Wobegon in its ethnic diversity.
Once Hilde and I were situated in a lively spot, we got out of our car and explored the scene surrounding us. Here are some vignettes from 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. Five cars are parked next to each other as if on display at an auto show and a group moves 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 keep their distance at first. Eventually, they approach each other’s cars and start comparing notes.
Three black families have set up camp, divided 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. From my remove, it seems as if they are entertaining each other with commentary on the informal fashion show. The men stand around a grill, cooking sausages. The tallest 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 having problems getting his grill started and asks 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. 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. I can feel the confidence in her natural dexterity and balance. Another girl, who looks as if she may be the soccer captain’s twin, stands and watches the game on crutches with a full cast on her left leg. She decides to get a better view of the action, sets the crutches down, 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 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 anyone 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 continuous promenade of teenagers, often in packs with a clear 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 I get a glimpse of his face, he already has the expression of a concerned adult.
A mixed-race group of boys and girls comes next in sequence. The three girls stage a choreographed dance for an iPhone camera. They review it, shaking their heads negatively and perform it again. The boys with them 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 resume 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 an army 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 with his free hand. The natty trio of Africans are now nodding their heads in time to Led Zeppelin too.
These people have all gathered together 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 observing the show. And then, when it gets dark, they will also watch a movie or two. These were vestiges of old drive-in familiarity that I had been seeking in 2012 at the Cottage View.
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; broadening 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 now participated 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.