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Seeing paradise from behind a dashboard
A couple watches a film at the Bayshore-Sunrise Drive-In in Bay Shore, N.Y., May 28, 1955. Drive-ins are a rarity these days, but they were a formative moviegoing experience for many Americans, including Peter Ramsey as an impressionable young boy who went on to become a director. Sam Falk/The New York Times.

by Peter Ramsey

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- I was probably 4 years old when we first went to the drive-in; this would have been in the late 1960s and my brother Eric was a year and a month younger than me. I vaguely remember being told earlier that day that we were going to the movies that night and spending that whole day antsy and excited, waiting for evening to fall, not really knowing what to expect.

Drive-ins are relatively rare now, their numbers nothing like their peak at just over 4,000 across the country in the late 1950s. They flourished until the ’80s, before being undone by the rise of indoor shopping malls and multiplex theaters, and have declined steadily until today, where there are about 300 left. But the closures are less frequent, and there are even new ones opening. Maybe it’s not a “resurgence,” but drive-ins do seem to be a perfect fit for this time of social distancing, as well as a communal theatrical experience novel enough to tear us away from our sofas and the clutches of the streaming services.

When I was a child, we didn’t go to the movies often; my father was a letter carrier for the United States Postal Service and my mother was a stay-at-home mom, and we lived right off Crenshaw Boulevard in what is now called South LA. A trip to the movies for us was a rare blue-collar treat. Going to a theater was truly special.

I remember the surprise and confusion I felt when my mother got out pajamas for Eric and I, onesies, with the little feet, and told us we were wearing them to the movies. What? And here was my brown corduroy jacket, over my pajamas? What was going on here?

It only got more intriguing from there. We piled into my father’s red Volkswagen Beetle, with the black-and-white checked seats. My mother piled blankets and sheets into the back seat with us, and my father carried a brown paper grocery bag to the car. All this only deepened the mystery.

What stands out in my memory now is not the movie we saw, but the experience itself. The screen was big, of course, but I remember worrying that we were so far away, there were so many cars ahead of us. Then my mother began making the back seat up with the sheets and blankets, and there were even pillows — and in my memory now, I remember it not as the back seat of a VW Beetle but as a whole bed — big enough for Eric and me to stretch out and roll around on cool, soft sheets.

I remember my parents reclining their seats in front; I remember my father messing around with the weird little box on a pole next to our car window, and the speaker crackling. I remember the screen coming to life. The dancing hot dog, popcorn box and soda, which fascinated me, but which my mother countered by fishing in the grocery bag for the sandwiches she’d brought from home, the cookies and box of Bugles snacks (which I had never had before — delicious). The soft silvery light bouncing off the screen, into the darkened car, flickering over the faces of the people in other cars not paying any attention to me, their eyes glued to the screen.

I remember the windows of our car being rolled down a little, so that you could hear the sound from other speakers echoing all around in the dark, that slight reverberating delay giving the whole thing a dreamlike, hazy feeling.

The movie was Walt Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” I remember the evil witch, and Snow White singing by the well. I remember a trailer for a movie with World War I pilots. I don’t remember the drive home; I’m sure Eric and I were blissfully asleep.

My next drive-in experience came a few years later: By this time, we had a new car, a ’67 Mustang, and a new sister, Maria, and no pajamas, about which I’m sure I was a little disappointed. It was the Century Drive-In once again, but this time, I remember my father falling under the spell of the dancing hot dog, taking me winding through parked cars with him, to the concession stand for popcorn and soda, which for the Ramsey Family felt like the big time.

I was older now, so this time I experienced the movie itself much more than the previous time. We saw another Disney movie, “The Love Bug.”

I loved it. As I said earlier, our trips to the movies were few and far between, so when we went, the experience of seeing one on a big screen was usually, for me, pretty overwhelming. Trips to theaters were, for me, practically like going to religious services; the communal aspect, the lighting, the temple-like décor — everything told you that you were doing something special and important. The emotions I felt were heightened; every second on the screen, every sound from the speakers had meaning. These moments were happening now; I didn’t know when my next trip to the theater would be, so I had to pay attention.

So for 6- or 7-year-old me, seeing Herbie the Love Bug, who was kind of a lovable anthropomorphic VW Beetle race car, actually splitting in half to win the big race at the movie’s climax was intensely emotional and poignant; Herbie was a tragic hero, making the ultimate sacrifice for his friends. I didn’t know if he’d be OK again — I mean, he literally split in half, with one half rolling across the finish line. How do you survive that?

Decades later, I found myself as one of the directors of “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” Watching shots and giving notes in our digital dailies, I constantly imagined myself as a child, sitting in a darkened theater and watching Miles Morales (who actually looked something like me, which is a whole other thing) and his friends up on-screen, their moments of bonding, of heartbreak, of triumph, of heroic sacrifice. Young me, seeing that up on a gigantic screen? I know it would have been absolutely everything. I can barely comprehend how the dream I had as a child, to be part of that magic, has somehow come true.

Today there are pop-up drive-in movies being programmed as part of an effort to entertain, to take back some fun from the grip of the pandemic. I read that one series is featuring “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse" as part of its lineup. Crazy, right?

I know that there will be little kids in their onesies under blankets in the back seat, happy and amazed that they’re out so late, being swept up in the light and the feeling coming from the gigantic screen. I know that, and I rejoice in it. I’m there with them, more than they could ever know.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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