It was a good hour before dusk when we rolled into the Wellfleet Drive-In Theatre in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. It was a sticky July evening and like so many of the other families vacationing on the Cape that were around us, we took our time selecting the perfect spot. This one’s too far. This one’s a bit too far on the left. This one’s too close to the snack stand. On and on it went until we nestled our SUV into a space close to the front, finally deciding that being near an open area in front of the screen to toss a Frisbee or throw a Wiffle ball offered the best advantages.
Others soon settled in around us. Big cars, small trucks, short vehicles—they all paraded into the lot; mothers and dads pouring out of those cars and setting up shop for the evening. Out came the beach chairs. Then the coolers of cold drinks. Kids collected small wads of dollar bills to buy candy at the snack shack. If you’ve been to a drive-in, you know the scene. It’s been like this ever since the Wellfleet first opened its doors in 1957.
By then, the drive-in movie concept was already an integral part of the American landscape. In fact, in case you missed it, the drive-in celebrated its 81st birthday this past June. The very first one launched on June 6, 1933, when a Camden, New Jersey, businessman named Richard Hollingshead Jr. opened the Automobile Movie Theatre. By the late 1950s, around the time the Wellfleet came into existence, some 4,000 screens had popped up throughout the country. But, you know, times changed. Technology and costs have taken their toll on the drive-ins in the years since. By 2011, only some 200 working screens still remained.
Which means the ones that have weathered the times have become these cherished time capsules; icons of an era when first-run movies didn’t stream into your living room. You actually had to leave your house to go see them. The Wellfleet certainly qualifies as a gem, as does the scene it inspires. As I perused the lot prior to the start of the first movie, Planes 2, I saw the kind of drive-in stuff that’s occupied movie parking lots for generations. Families carefully marking out their picnic spots, teenage boys chucking a football around, and teenage girls trying hard not to admire some of those same boys. Little kids gorged on candy, while parents did their best not to finish off the entire large bucket of popcorn. (I failed miserably on that front.)
Then dusk descended, the big screen lit up and for the next couple of hours a community of tourists were entertained by a cartoon plane. Was the film all that good? Yeah, sort of. Frankly, though, I didn’t care. My young son loved the idea of watching a movie in a car. He talked about it for days afterwards. A next generation drive-in fan had been created.
For more on the Wellfleet Drive-In Theatre, visit: wellfleetcinemas.com