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It’s 2020. Let’s all go to the Drive-In?

Drive-In movie screen at dusk

When’s the last time you went to a drive-in movie?

If it’s been awhile, I understand. First off, you need a car. I don’t even have a license. You need to find one still standing. Drive-in theatres in North America have mostly all shut down. Toronto had one close to downtown for a while. Now the closest drive-in theatre near me is in Oakville. Most cities are similar: drive an hour or two to catch a movie where the sound comes through your car radio?

Before the pandemic, I could count on two fingers the number of times I’d been to the drive-in as an adult. And I wouldn’t exactly call them my best movie-going experiences.

An ex-boyfriend once rented a car so we could see a retro screening of Fright Night at the Oakville Drive-In. (I’m a sucker for vampire movies.) He mostly complained a lot that making out in a car is uncomfortable, so not sure he really got the concept of drive-in movie dates. And my camping pal Rebecca and I tried to catch Channing Tatum in Lucky Logan at the rural Muskoka Drive-In on our way to Algonquin Park a few years back. With about 20 minutes left in the film, the power suddenly went out. The radio broadcast screeched eerily then went silent; we eventually joined a queue of cars slowly exiting the facility in complete darkness — not at all spooked. We still don’t know how that film ends.

But now there’s a pandemic and the drive-in has suddenly become the thing to do. These outdoor theatres are built for social distancing. You’re in your own car the entire time. If you don’t get out to pee or buy snacks, you can have a contactless experience. It’s also nostalgic.

For the most part you won’t get to see any current movies, just classics. There’s no Starbucks or bougie popcorn at the snack bar. Who doesn’t want to forget we’re in 2020 for a few hours?

So I went. Not to the makeshift drive-ins popping up in mall parking lots and other empty spaces. A proper old school drive-in. The 5 Drive-In in Oakville, Ontario. Not once, but three times.

My summer of 2020 drive-in movie adventure, a story in three acts:

Act 1: Grease is the word, until it isn’t

Liisa and Liz driving to the movies
Blank drive in movie screen

First thing you need to enjoy the drive-in is a cool date. I went with my neighbour Liz, who is part of my small COVID-19 bubble and someone I feel safe being in a car with. Liz and I share a deep love for the movie Grease. When I told her it was screening at the Premier Drive-In theatre in Oakville it took 30 seconds for us to buy tickets. Then all we needed to do was figure out what to wear.

Now it might be tempting to go to the drive-in wearing your pyjamas.

After all, we grew up doing that, so our parents could roll us straight into bed when get got home passed out asleep late at night. But during this pandemic, I’ve spent quite enough time in lazy leisurewear, thank you very much. This was a date night and I was going to dress up!

So off we went, in our 1950s themed outfits no less, to see a movie in what Wiki calls “Ontario’s largest town.” This was back in June, when everything else was still closed, it felt like a proper adventure. We weren’t alone in our thinking. Premier has three screens and all were sold out. We didn’t know why there were firefighters at the entrance but as we slowly made our way through the queue and saw cars turned around at the ticket booth our enthusiasm sank.

A projector bulb had blown out. Grease was cancelled. We turned around and drove home. The lesson? It’s 2020. Don’t assume anything will go as planned.

Act 2: Nobody puts baby in a corner, unless she’s late

Oakville Drive-In marquee

A few weeks later, we tried again. Dirty Dancing was playing. I’d never felt the need to see it on the big screen but Liz loves it and we were still crying for a night out. It was 80% humidity on a heat alert day. We did not dress up.

We also didn’t show up early enough apparently because the place was packed, 30 minutes before showtime. I guess I’ve become accustomed to the reserved seating system, waltzing in a few minutes before a film. I also thought folks would want to minimize the amount of time spent sitting in their cars. Nope. This was more like a film festival, where the regulars arrive at doors open to secure their fave spot. We found one towards the back of the lot and only grumbled a little bit before settling in for the night.

If you haven’t been to the drive-in lately there are some things you might not have thought much about.

Like bringing a blanket to the movies. Or whether you know how to keep your car’s radio running but with your lights off. Do you know every line of dialogue in the movie? Because if your car radio goes off because you can’t figure that last part out and you didn’t pack blankets like those two girls in front of you who are now trying to use those blankets to cover their headlights, you’re gonna miss some bits.

Minor panics about the radio/lights situation and some mosquitos aside, it was a successful night! We sang. We laughed. We left before the second feature of Fast Times at Ridgemont High. We know how to quit when we’re ahead.

Act 3: Oh, those summer nights

Sunset at the Oakville drivein

OK so we didn’t actually quit. The Oakville drive-in announced another screening of Grease so off we went. We said we weren’t going to dress up this time. Liz lied. She has her own custom Pink Ladies jacket so of course she had to wear it!

This time, only the sky was on fire.

A good 5% of my brain bank is devoted to every lyric of the movie Grease and I really needed to put that to good use. 

If you happened to pull up to the spots on either side of us that night and you had hoped to leave your windows down, we apologize for all the singing. Actually, I’m not sorry. You’re lucky we weren’t allowed out of the car to hand jive. (We may or may not have used the open sunroof to do the “Greased Lighting” dance moves.)

My favourite scenes in Grease have always been the dance numbers, but this night I think I liked the “Stranded at the Drive-In” sequence best. Maybe I kept thinking Danny Zuko was going jump off the screen and serenade us. Maybe I just liked watching the same spinning hot dog “let’s all go to the lobby” snacks ad in the movie and then after the movie during our intermission.

Scene from Grease on the drive-in screen

I do know that it was the latest I had stayed out since this pandemic started. I realized how much I missed the night. The drive-in’s slogan is “movies are bigger and better under the stars.” This year at least, I completely agree.

Like most real drive-ins screenings this was a double-feature. Did I fall asleep after Grease during Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Yes, yes I did. Good thing I was already wearing my pyjamas.

Tell me about your own drive-in adventures in the comments. Also anything you want to say about Grease, I’m here for it.

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